The bond between a parent and child is one of the most important relationships formed by humans at any point in their lives (Young, 2013). Both for parents and their children, forming a relationship which supports physical, emotional, and intellectual growth can be the foundation for a sense of security and protection while enabling children to feel confident exploring and becoming independent decision makers and capable adults. In most cases, the parent-child bonding process begins at birth and continues throughout adolescence and into adulthood, with the primary experiences occurring before the age of five. This means a great deal of interaction and bonding happens prior to the age when children are able to interact verbally and express their wants and needs in an articulate fashion and, in fact, physical proximity between parents and children beginning in the moments immediately following birth has been noted as one of the most important aspects of the bonding experience (Johnson, 2013).
Beyond the physical bonding, parents can use many aspects of the time spent with their infants and toddlers to develop and strengthen the parent-child bond. Mealtime, bedtime, and even playtime can be used to teach lessons, share experiences, and come to understand one another on a level which supports inquisitiveness, growth and trust. As young children spend most of their time at play, whether that be independently or in play groups, learning to harness the power of play as an important part of bonding can help parents develop solid relationships with their young children which serve as the means toward continued parent-child trust in school-age and adolescent children.
Playtime may not seem like an easy time to bond with young children. Infants and toddlers tend to prefer independent (or parallel) play to group play and often decline to interact with adults or other children their age during play (Masterson & Kersey, 2013). You may find that your child prefers to focus attention on one or two toys and seems to act as though he or she is alone during playtime, ignoring your presence entirely. Rest assured that, while this may seem to be the case, your child is aware of your presence and knows when you are paying attention or not (if you doubt, simply turn your head for a moment and wait for that toy which was essential to his or her well-being moments ago as it is flung across the play space where only you can retrieve it). Learning to use playtime as bonding time will bring you and your child closer and help the transition when the child reaches the age of daycare or the first day of school.
Play comes naturally to children, as it is the primary means through which they learn about themselves and the world around them. For adults, however, setting aside the “office persona” to get down on the floor and run cars about the living area may seem alien and nearly impossible. Letting go of your adult persona, however, is the first step toward helping your child see you as an ally and not simply an authority figure. By learning to play with your child, you enter their space and their world as opposed to asking them to operate in your world – a world in which there are many rules and restrictions they have yet to understand.
Play can also be a time when you learn about your child and create a deeper bond by understanding and respecting their preferences and experiences. Parents who work can use playtime to learn about the events of a child’s day, who their friends are, what they learned, and what negativity they experienced. By sharing these things with you, your child comes to understand their life as being as important to you as your own and they will often continue to be open and trusting with you as they grow. Children also develop social skills during play that can serve them as they mature but which are often awkward to experience at first. Trying social skills out with mommy or daddy can be a “no-fault” way to learn sharing, respect, and consideration for others.
During play, reach out to your child and allow him or her to take the lead in exploration and imagination. Engaging in play with your child while allowing them to dictate the parameters (and often by becoming whatever mythical character or animal they choose) helps them to understand leadership and roles and the fluidity of those concepts. Mommy or daddy can be the rabbit in attendance at a child’s tea party as easily as they can be the caregiver, and children often use these types of play scenarios to understand how roles change from one situation to another. Don’t be afraid to use that roll of wrapping paper as a sword and engage in combat where you are eventually defeated by a very small king or queen; this helps your child see you as a multi-faceted person and not simply an enforcer of rules.
The bottom line is that playtime, much like every other time in a young child’s life, is learning time. Use that time to help your child learn about you and vice-versa in order to strengthen the bonds of love and respect you cultivate at other points in your son or daughter’s day and you will find your parent-child relationship to be much more rewarding than you may ever have imagined.
Johnson, K. (2013). Maternal-infant bonding: A review of literature. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 28(3), 17-22.
Masterson, M. L., & Kersey, K. C. (2013). Maximizing your influence to make toddler mornings meaningful. Young Children, 68(5), 10-15.
Young, R. (2013). The importance of bonding. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 28(3).