Children's need for fun is serious business

This is part one of a seven-part series on the SPECIAL emotional needs of children.

We had been in the Target checkout line all of about 1.3 seconds when my daughter started begging for candy.

This was 10 years ago now — Maxine had just turned 4 — and I remember we were shopping with my brother-in-law, Richard. After listening to Maxine beg in vain for a bit, Richard tried for humor.

"If you want to buy candy," he said, "you have to get a job."

Maxine became very serious.

"I have a job," she told her uncle. "My job is to play. And I did very good at that today."

Kids are naturals at nailing the punchline, aren't they?

The Tip of the Iceberg

Last week, I introduced the concept of the seven emotional needs, and how a shortage in any of the seven categories can lead children to behave in challenging ways. I also talked about how a child's outward behavior is only the tip of the iceberg.

When we focus on the difficult behavior (whether it's fighting with a sibling, insisting on eating ice cream for dinner, or refusing to take out the trash), we may be tempted to react solely to what we see. We may scold, threaten, bribe or otherwise manipulate the child into being more cooperative, more respectful, more grateful, more pleasant. But all that manipulation just pisses kids off, leading to more challenging behavior, not less, and raising our stress levels in the process.

When we look below the surface, though, and identify the need that isn't being met, we discover our ace in the hole. The need is the ace. The need is the problem. The need is also the solution.

S is for Smile

To remember the needs, it helps to think of the acronym SPECIAL (Smile, Powerful, Explore, Connection, Importance, Attention and Love.) Today, we tackle"Smile” — shorthand for fun, laughter and play — a need that is as overlooked as it is undervalued. Indeed, we often think of fun as something to enjoy when the work is done, but laughter is vital to children's wellbeing, delivering numerous benefits to their little bodies and brains.

Let's say your child is not cooperating at dinner time or bedtime or bath time or clean-up time. You stop and give yourself a minute to consider what need isn't being met and realize that it's been awhile since your child had a good belly laugh. "Smile" may not be the only need your child is lacking in this moment, but you suspect it's one of them. So you find a way to make the task before you more silly or goofy or funny. You suggest eating dinner in the middle of the living room floor. You wheelbarrow your child to bed. You load the bathtub with small kitchen items. You go have a quick dance party in the backyard before asking your child to clean up his toys.

A Real-World Example

Let's take a recent real-world example, shall we?

Last weekend, my husband and I thought a fun, safe family activity would be to drive three hours up to Santa Barbara and walk around the botanical gardens there. Maxine, who is now 14, agreed — but that was before she realized that the adventure would require two things she vehemently dislikes: long car rides and hiking. Plus, her screen-free time happened to fall during said car ride, which meant boredom was bound to set in very, very quickly. (Bruh!)

Making matters worse, the weather turned out to be hotter than expected, we often were walking in full sun, and Maxine's face mask was giving her trouble.

Yada yada yada, by mid-afternoon, we didn't have a happy camper on our hands. In this case, my daughter's "tip-of-the-iceberg" behavior was low-grade complaining and a generally crunchy mood.

The dreaded gardens.

What Happens When the Need Isn't Met?

Now, if Maxine had been born to parents with a more controlling parenting style, I have no doubt her behavior would have been shut down. She would have been asked to change her attitude, stop complaining, and be grateful she gets to explore one of the most beautiful areas of the country when so much of the world is suffering. If things got worse, she might have been given some sort of consequence — sitting in the car until she could be more pleasant, perhaps.

That certainly would have brought an end to the behavior problem. But at what cost?

If Maxine's Parallel Universe parents were anything like me, they'd be disappointed, if not exhausted, by the exchange with their daughter; they'd have a sullen, angry teen on their hands; and they still wouldn't have solved their problem. The emotional need was the problem — and it's still there, right below the surface.

And what about the long-term effect? Insisting a girl "be pleasant" for the sake of others, particularly in the face of her true emotions, sends the message that it's good for girls to bury their feelings and focus on what others think. Not exactly what most of us are going for.

Perfection is Not Necessary — or Possible

Here's what happened in our world:

When Maxine's behavior at the gardens turned crunchy, we rolled with it. We tried to ignore the attitude and affirm her feelings in the moment ("Yeah, it is hot today, I don't blame you for wanting to take your mask off..."), while taking lots of deep breaths in lieu of "overreacting." We didn't do a perfect job; we rarely do. But we did alright.

Then, on the way back home, while I dozed in the backseat and Maxine sat in front, my husband put his finger on the missing need and pulled his ace out of the hole: Fun, laughter and play. Soon, the two were singing and laughing together and making plans for their next business venture. (Something about a restaurant called Poppers in which all the food is served in popper form. Think "pizza poppers" that contain all the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner, or all the elements of cheeseburgers and fries. I would say you had to be there, but I was there, and, honestly, the funniest thing about the whole conversation was how hilarious the two of them found it. This is the same pair who created an imaginary mattress store called Princess Pea's Mattress Palace with the tagline "Put a little pea in your mattress." So.)

My point here — and I do hope it hasn't been lost — is that "Smile" saved the day, the trip, and maybe even the week.

Covid Steals our Smiles

We are living through a superbly hard time right now, and fun isn't always on the agenda. Summer vacations, playdates, summer sports: Covid-19 has sabotaged so much of what parents rely on to make their kids' smile. It's part of why we're all struggling right now. Children have a need for fun — whatever that looks like to them — and often have trouble locating it.

To be clear, it is not your job to entertain your kids 24/7. We can't always bring the fun, especially during stressful times. But do keep “Smile” in mind when you are diagnosing challenging behavior. Just knowing what’s missing may help focus your thoughts and gather the patience you need to get through these hard days with your sanity intact.

Her job was to play. And she was "very good at it."

Read the next in the series here.