Fun Ways to Help Your Child Learn Hard LessonsParenting five children provides me with incredible, daily life-altering moments of pure joy. There is nothing like the look on the face of my sons after they pin Daddy in a living room wrestling match. After a stressful day at work, I enjoy the euphoria of bedtime snuggles and kisses. This part of parenting is easy.

But let’s be honest, parenting is not always fun. There are parts of this gig that are downright difficult. Some important lessons my wife and I would like to teach our children can be hard for them to learn and therefore, challenging for us to instill. When our child hits a sibling or playmate, refuses to do chores or homework, or simply ignores our multiple requests, it’s easy to jump into correction and attack mode. We’re poised to nip the behavior in the bud, only to have our well-meaning discipline met with defiance. Often our lessons don’t seem to be sinking in and the cycle continues.

However, there is a secret I share with parents and implement in my home whenever possible: add enjoyment and effectiveness during the most difficult parts of parenting. We do this by teaching during happy moments.

Teach During the Good Times

Most parents quickly realize that when kids are all fired up, nothing is getting in their heads or hearts. When you feel there is no reasoning with your child, you are probably right. Research shows that children and people in general learn best when they are happy and calm. Connection rather than correction is the key.

Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute said, “Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning. There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more nonlinear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.”

By using inherently enjoyable activities and settings as a vehicle for cooperative problem solving and learning, we create a learning environment during which our teaching has a better chance of sinking in. A few important guiding principles to remember when applying the approach of teaching during the good times include:

  • Always enforce boundaries, but leave the teaching and problem solving for more positive times.
  • Make note of things your child is struggling with to address later.
  • If they’re grumpy, the lecture can wait.
  • Approach them at their level.
  • Create regular opportunities to talk and spend time together with your kids.

The following are some simple ways parents can teach the hardest lessons in fun ways that produce better cooperative behavior and better relationships.

  1. Teaching through play: During play both our child’s and our own dopamine levels are heightened, allowing for greater problem solving, learning, and connection. Playing with our child provides the most positive and receptive platform for teaching kids new skills like manners, conflict resolution, self-regulation, assertiveness, goals setting, boundaries, integrity, kindness, compassion and a thousand other life lessons. Imaginary play gives opportunities for modeling these things in a nonconfrontational, nonthreatening way that kids understand. Sports and games give opportunities for kids to learn and apply many of these skills as well. In regular, playful conversation we can demonstrate and explain other times that these skills apply in their daily routine. In addition, the relationship-building effects of playing with our kids certainly play a significant role in our children’s trust, confidence and willingness to act on our advice.
  2. Family night: A weekly evening that is dedicated to family fun, learning and growing together can be the perfect setting for addressing ongoing family struggles and solving problems together. Designate a time each week to put aside responsibilities and distractions and just be together, then consistently keep it. Do something fun together. Eat something tasty together. Lastly, learn and grow together. Ask your kids for suggestions to common family conflicts and solve problems. Get out a white board while everyone eats their ice cream and write down ways for everyone to stay calm when problems arise or make a plan for how to get chores and homework done. Make it a collaborative and fun experience.
  3. Reading to your kids: Kids love stories. Their brains are hardwired to learn from stories. They relate to the characters and internalize the lessons found in the pages of books. You can strategically select books that teach the skills your child needs to improve their behavior and solve personal problems. The great part about teaching through reading is that the characters can deliver the hard truths to your children’s wide-open minds. The same correction is offered without the defensiveness and without you becoming the bad guy.

It’s time to recognize that our kids learn, absorb and apply solutions to their most difficult problems and behaviors when they are smiling. That is good news. It means that even the hardest parts of parenting don’t have to be quite so hard. We can play more, read more and spend more happy time together with confidence that these practices bring not only more joyful moments but more learning as well.

About Andy Smithson, LCSW

Andy Smithson is a licensed clinical social worker, therapist, writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is a father of five wonderful children and a devoted husband. He is the creator and author of the TRU Parenting blog, and his writing has been featured in The Good Men Project, The Washington Post, The Deseret News and many other publications.

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