Joining in the Children’s Game

Written by Dr. Michael Milgraum on . Posted in Advice Columns

Parenting experts have much to say about behavioral management, the methodical approach to parenting that seeks to rationally examine and structure expectations, environment, and consequences. While this approach has much merit, it is incomplete and often ineffective if it lacks something that we might call “relationship management.”

“Relationship management” refers to the quality of connectedness that we experience with our children. It is explored by asking questions such as:

How much am I enjoying my child and how much is he enjoying me?

Do I show curiosity about my child’s world, his likes, dislikes, hopes, and disappointments?

Do I get down on the floor or ground and risk getting my hands dirty so I can join in his game?

Do I share stories and anecdotes with him that give a glimpse into my values and the values of the culture from which he comes?

Do I show genuine delight when my child acts consistently with those values?

Do I judiciously overlook minor misbehaviors to keep the focus on a positive relationship and connection with my child?

In contrast with behavioral management, which seeks to mold our children into our vision of what they are supposed to be, relationship management prioritizes the actual vital connection we have with our child. In relationship management, we shift the focus away from creating compliant children. Instead, we focus on raising children who are understood by the parent and, in a marvelous mirror image, start to understand the parent and his world far beyond anything that could be instilled by the behavioral approach. The child matures and eventually becomes more adult-like because he loves, admires, and wants to be like the parent. Of course, for those who value Jewish tradition, this is, by far, the most effective way to ensure that the tradition will be valued by the next generation.

There is another benefit of the relationship management approach. The most successful style of parenting is one based on a profound understanding of the unique personality makeup of that child — strengths, weaknesses, and, perhaps most importantly, how the weaknesses can be made into strengths. But someone who is too intent on training his children may overlook the need to listen to them and understand the specific inner workings of each child. Relationship management creates a space for this awareness.

I recently encountered the story of Alma Deutscher, a 13-year-old musical genius who lives in England, and I perceived an absolutely essential lesson about parenting in that story. At the age of 4, she was already experimenting with composing music at the piano. She composed her first piano concerto at age 6, and her first opera at age 7. I saw her, at age 12, pick four notes from a hat and, on the spot, compose and play a complex piano piece based on those four random notes.

While these feats are outstanding, they are not what is most compelling to me about Alma’s story. What grabbed my attention was that Alma has always had a very active fantasy life, including an imaginary country with its own language inhabited by composers of beautiful music. In Alma’s relaxed reveries, the compositions from this faraway land would come to her and it was these very tunes that she used as the basis for her own works. As a young child, Alma had an intense need to act out characters from this fantasy land, and her parents played along, humoring Alma’s extravagant costumes and “royal” behavior, as she “became” these various characters.

Although Alma’s talents are off the charts, her parents offered her something more precious than those talents themselves — the freedom and space to playfully explore them without pressures and demands. A noted conductor said of her compositions, “It’s like play to her.” To this day, one of her inspirations is a pink jump rope, given to her by her grandmother, which she flips and twirls, and, in the freedom of that movement, gets new ideas for her compositions.

Just like there are untold gifts within Alma, so too there are precious gifts within each one of our children that can only emerge if we attentively listen, bond with them, and join in their game.

By Dr. Michael Milgraum


Dr. Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He sees children, adults, and families for therapy, parenting advice, and evaluations.