In the pilot episode of our new Living Playfully podcast, pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky and I talk about the best, most meaningful gifts for kids this holiday, how to handle the overstimulation that comes with the season, and concrete ways we can disconnect from our devices and connect to each other.
Here’s our conversation:
Melissa: Today is a really exciting day because we are starting a podcast.
Dr. Jenny: Woohoo!
Melissa: Dr. Jenny Radesky and I, two self-proclaimed introverts, are partnering to do a podcast. Thirty-one years ago my now husband and I started our toy company, Melissa & Doug. If there's one thing I personally know, parenting has become much more challenging. A generation ago when our parents parented, it was pretty easy because they just went about their business and sort of let us outside and we went about our business and came home for dinner and went to bed and that was pretty much it.
Having had six children — two in my twenties, two in my thirties, and two in my forties — I have experienced that parenting has become even more challenging in the last 15 years since my first two were growing up.
I think our goal is really to be a beacon for parents and help them to navigate these really pressing issues and to be totally transparent in doing so. Because I don't have the answers. I am struggling just like everyone else, but we can all help each other, I think, find the best path.
Dr. Jenny has been such a support to me with her wisdom and training to help navigate some of these issues and I would love her to tell a little bit about herself.
Dr. Jenny: Thanks, Melissa. That's about the nicest thing someone could say. So I'm Dr. Jenny Radesky. I'm a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, and what that means is that my job is to play with kids and get down on the floor with them, and kind of joke around and try to get inside their minds a little bit to try to understand what makes them tick. I diagnose kids with things like ADHD or autism or anxiety, but really what I'm trying to do is understand who is this specific child, what are their strengths and their challenges, how can I support their parents in just managing everyday behaviors?
And that's why it is so cool to be joining this podcast, where I not only can speak with the parents that I know one on one, but we can share some common parenting experiences, really practical guidance about things like technology, about things like finding time for play when you have a really stressful day.
The other thing that I do is, I am a researcher and I study children's technology use and parents’ technology use. I take my framework from clinic, where I'm trying to really understand the way kids' brains tick, and then I look at technology and try to identify the mismatches of where technology's design isn't always matching up with what our children need, or in some cases where there is a good match, but we need to kind of keep it balanced and keep all those other important things that really help children grow in the early years.
So my role in this podcast is that I'm hoping to bring the science lens. You'll hear me always focusing on all different kinds of minds, because I really think that neurodiverse kids are awesome. And it's really important to understand the way your child thinks, in order to know what sort of technology or play is the best for them, or not so much.
And the other thing I really want to bring to this podcast is that I always try to see the function that media is playing for a family. The reason I'm excited to be working with Melissa & Doug is that when I identify that a family is looking to use media for a certain reason or a certain function, I'm always trying to find a replacement activity that's meeting that same need, that same relaxation or that same fun or that same, maybe quiet, that they need. I'm always looking for some other activity that Melissa is so good at identifying or packaging into their toys.
What is Play?
Dr. Jenny: Before we get started with some parent questions, this podcast is called Living Playfully. So what do we mean by that? It's probably important for listeners to know what do we mean by play? It's so different person to person, culture to culture. From a scientific standpoint, I think it's when a child interacts with objects and they have control and autonomy and they decide what happens next, and they kind of enjoy it and maybe their parent's involved and maybe they're not. But I guess I want to ask you, since you're so involved in designing the play objects that kids interact with.
Melissa: Play in our world is when children engage in anything that brings them pure joy. Play isn't done for an end result. Play is done purely for feeling that unadulterated freedom of just doing whatever your heart desires. What is so important about engaging in play early is that finding that thing that sets your heart free and makes you feel like you want nothing more in life allows you to access that feeling throughout your entire life.
One of the things at Melissa & Doug that we're really striving to promote is living playfully throughout your entire life. So accessing that feeling, that hobby, that pastime that brings you joy. And then keeping those things alive as you go into adulthood. Because we are seeing a crisis in mental health now, we are seeing this loss of childhood. And one of the reasons you and I are partnering together is to bring back childhood and really make sure that kids have the ability to have a childhood.
What most don't talk about is the fact that it can't end in childhood. I think one of the reasons we, as adults, aren't championing play for our kids, is because we ourselves have forgotten what it means to play, which is just tragic. So many adults I know have lost sight of anything in their lives other than obligation and responsibility, and they're just going through the motions without any joy. So play is the essence of what you and I are doing with this podcast. And hopefully through it we will teach others, we will teach ourselves, and we will all really access those things that bring us joy, so we can not only live them ourselves, but champion them for all our children.
Dr. Jenny: I think you totally hit on something that comes up in clinic all the time for me. When I'm on the ground playing with kids and doing something really goofy to try to get the child's attention or to try to get them to reciprocate, like a back and forth, bubbles, or shooting foam rockets, or something like that, I've heard parents say, "Yeah, but I don't know how to play like that."
It's not that I have some special talent I've really practiced. I had to get over the kind of stuffy expectations of like, "I'm a doctor, I wear a white coat," and really just know that I'm going to be more effective in figuring out how this child ticks if I get on the ground and I'm at their eye level, and I try and figure which activity is really going to motivate them the most. When parents say something like that to me, I also want them to know, play isn't this precious, difficult thing to do. It really is just that feeling of, "Ah, we felt so connected right then," or, "Oh, that just made me fall down laughing." Or sometimes it's an experience of, "Wow, all I'm doing is being here with you and we're enjoying this silent, putting together a puzzle."
Play can be active, it can be hilarious. It could be telling jokes. In clinic, I like to ask parents, "What do you love doing that makes you laugh or makes you feel like your heart is full and you really feel connected with your kids?"
Of course, there are times where parents are so stressed out that they'll say, "I can't think of anything." But usually parents can think of one or two things where they're like, "It's dancing," or it's, “I just love when we do silly faces and tickle fights.”
Part of the goal of this podcast is not to pretend that there's some perfect way to play or to raise your child. We are not coming at this as if we are experts in children. Yeah, we both have a lot of experience, but parents are the real experts. Parents know their kids much better than anyone else. And so our job is to really talk about important topics. We'll talk about things that we think are affecting a lot of parents but then let parents be the experts and make the decisions for their own kids at home.
Last thing I want to say is that we are definitely going to try to talk about the barriers to play and if those barriers are cultural, if those barriers are stress-related, and how to break them down and open up more time in your day or just in your minute to minute interactions with kids to make it feel like you're connecting more.
Melissa: Yes. We wanted the issues we would tackle to be those issues most pressing to you, parents out there.
Dr. Jenny: Today we're going to be focusing on a bunch of questions we got around the holiday time since it's coming up. And since this is such a big time when we're thinking of toys and play and kids and behavior or not so great behavior. Here's our first question.
How Do You Handle Overstimulation During the Holidays?
Katie (on phone): Hi Melissa and Dr. Jenny. This is Katie from Oneonta, New York. I have two children, a newborn and a 2-year-old. And I'm wondering how do you deal with overstimulation on the holidays and birthdays. When kids get so many presents in one day? Is there a way to space out the fun throughout the year?
Melissa: Wow, that's a great one. I just had the craziest experience the other day. I was seeing that first holiday onslaught of consumerism with the top toy lists and the ads and the jingles and the carols. And instead of feeling that familiar rush of excitement that I usually feel . . . for whatever reason, I felt this panic because I realized that once again I was going to have to buy my children that “perfect” gift. And we celebrate Hanukkah and I have six children and there are eight nights. So it's actually not even that perfect gift. It's 48 perfect gifts!
Dr. Jenny: Oh, god. That's terrifying!
Melissa: It is one of the most stressful things I do! I just wrote a blog post about this feeling because it made me think wistfully about how a holiday that is supposed to be about family and togetherness and joy and giving has become about presents and commercialism. And how could we get back to basics.
Choosing Gifts About Experiences and Togetherness
Dr. Jenny: The whole idea that there is a perfect gift is something that we've probably constructed as a society that has to do with the way commercials show kids unwrapping and freaking out when they see that gift that they really, really wanted. Just this idea that there's perfection at all . . . I think when you're a parent of young kids you recognize how messy it all is, how happy you are for like little wins every once in awhile.
This is especially true for the parents of my patients who have developmental differences. They get this reset where you just start to really appreciate these tiny wins. It's like yes, we made it into Target this weekend and there was no tantrum even though we went at eight o'clock right when it opens. Right? So there are these little moments of your life giving you some joy, giving you some grace that feels like such a gift compared to these other perfect moments that have been somehow typified or defined on social media or some other way.
I love gifts that may not be as amazing when you tear them open, but they kind of unfold over the week you're home with your kids. They may not be the blockbuster, thrilling gift. It’s not a video game console. It's not a big, you know, internet-connected pet who listens to you. It could be something that is like — we just got a few pieces of outdoor gear and we are going to look up all the parks that we can drive to and go look for the sort of birds that stay up in Michigan in the winter. Or for some kids, they may roll their eyes at that and maybe it's . . . we got a bunch of little spa things and we're going to take care of each other and we're going to make it this little social fun thing that we do every day on break.
So if you can find items or gifts that somehow require everyone to use them together, a gift that kind of unfolds and proves itself and actually becomes this nice lasting interaction . . . you get more out of that rather than the big perfect gift.
Melissa: I love that! I just thought about it differently with you saying it. This has just become another byproduct of that desire to achieve success and the grade and the focus on the performance. As a parent, I literally feel judged by what I get my kids and how much they like it. And when I get that gift where they're like, "Yes, this is exactly what I wanted." I sort of get the check of validation.
Dr. Jenny: Oh, you're an awesome parent, then. There you go.
Melissa: And then when I don't, I feel I go right down into the dumps of like, “Aw, I messed up.”
Dr. Jenny: How long does that last though?
Melissa: No, I'm with you. It's completely wrong. But I think so many of us have been caught in this loop of like, we have to perform for our kids.
Dr. Jenny: I know. So last year the day after Christmas my sons were like, "I can't believe it's all over. What are we going to do?" They just had this coming down from all of the fun stuff that was packed into that one day. And that's why this person's question is so spot-on. What if there could be something that's not just like, everything just goes crazy all in one day? But when you have little things — and you're lucky you have that built in with Hanukkah and it's kind of spaced out over the days — or you have an experience that really kind of weaves itself into your year together . . . that's where I see it being a bonus gift.
I know I look up into the closet and I'm, like, yep, that one was a real hit. Like they begged for it and begged for it and then it didn't really work. And how do you predict what those are when you're looking through all these toy magazines that come around this time of year? You can't really, but you can, as a parent, have a mindset of, okay, I'm going to get a few fun, flashy things that my kid really wants. But it doesn't all have to be like that. You can intentionally find a few things that you know your kids love. You know, the sort of experiences where you feel really connected — that are your play moments. It does challenge you to be creative and think out of the box. You can't just look up on Google “best gift for 7-year-old boy.” It really does make you a bit more creative. But when you're creative and it works and it winds up being a success, it feels even better than when you just found it on a checklist.
Melissa: Yeah. So this panic led me to really rethink the holidays and what they're supposed to mean and making the holiday stand for something much more than just that one day of giving gifts. When you think about those memories you're left with after the holiday, ironically, rarely are you thinking about that actual gift you unwrapped. Almost always those memories involve family, warmth, togetherness, eating, music. I know for me that I'm always left with.
Dr. Jenny: My favorite was these really cheap roll-up sleds that my parents used to get for us. They were seriously just a piece of plastic with two holes in the front and you unrolled them. We lived near the beach so we would go to the snow-covered dunes and nearly break our bones on these cheap sleds. But that's what I remember: they were giving us an experience. They were giving us this “go out trudge in the cold, just you and your brothers and sisters and figure out how to not kill yourself” kind of experience.
Melissa: Yes! I once was at a meeting that started with this incredible exercise. They said, let's go around the table and revisit one memory from your childhood that you think of the most. And it was so fascinating. Every memory was about family, togetherness, music, food. Nothing involved technology, nothing involved anything truly excessive. It was literally all about the human connections we have. The question is, how do we get back to that?
And that's what I really was thinking about for this blog. It was like “how do we take a time of year that has become so fraught with purchasing and make it about what it's supposed to be?” And I was left thinking about all those things you can do with your family that are enjoyable so that the kids aren't going to fight you on doing them. They're going to embrace them, but they're also going to bring a lot of joy. So I made a top 10 list of my own gifts that really don't require actual big purchases.
One, that I'm sure you engage in, is baking. Baking is so much fun! There isn't any kid I've ever known who doesn't love baking. And there's so much personalization in baking, right? You can choose what flavor of cookie you're making. You can choose what shape to make it in. You can decorate it. You can give it. The great thing about baking is you can keep some for yourself and then you can make this great family exercise of going out and giving them to people in need who don't have cookies or cakes. And there's so much fun in that exercise.
Dr. Jenny: I mean the developmental science part of that — to get nerdy for a second — is that when you are engaging your children in traditions or in some sort of chipping in at home with some adult activity that they get to help with, that's what's thought of as informal learning. When they watch the adults, chip in with the adults, work side by side with the adults, they're not only learning the step-by- step of how to make a certain Christmas cookie, they're also learning the value of working together and it becomes something that they remember as they grow older. It carries this deeper meaning for them. And I also love to tell my patients’ parents to cook with their kids because it requires so much impulse control and planning and organization.
When you have all those chocolate chips and you really want to grab all of them and you kind of dole out . . . okay, how many should each of us have before we actually mix them in . . . and can you really resist not grabbing them? For my sons, they always love to put their hands in the flour. I know that sounds gross, but they say it's so sensory. And so I give them one reminder to try to inhibit that impulse and to try to remember step-by-step, how we make pancakes. But those are the ways our brain learns planning, organization, all these executive functions that we know are so important for children's academic success or adult well-being. You're actually just building it and integrating it into a meaningful activity together.
And I was going to say also, getting the tree or setting it up and figuring out is it going the right way . . . all of these visual, spatial aspects of working together and chipping in. Your hands are going to get filled with sap, but that's part of the cool grossness of it.
I really want families to be thinking of all of those times where the kids can chip in and feel proud for doing something that grownups do. And especially a lot of my patients with ADHD who are really impulsive and kind of want to be in control, they love being able to be part of the grownup solution, you know? And also being given some little reminders of how to do things the right way. Not always just being told no, no, no, no, no, don't do that. Don't touch that. What else were you thinking of for your list?
Melissa: I love this idea of building traditions that you can then do again and again. And it's funny, some of the ones in our family that have become traditions, the kids ask for them and you think “that was such a little silly thing,” but they literally ask for it. Part of it is not only decorating but actually helping to make the decorations and every year adding to your repertoire of decorations. We make a lot of the decorations for Hanukkah that go on our Hanukkah table. And I think it's a very proud moment when those decorations get stored away for the next year. I think that whole act of preparing for the season is something that kids can really take ownership of and really get excited about.
Dr. Jenny: And another way that we used to prepare when we were kids is that it really was expected that we would spend our own money to buy all of our five brothers and sisters gifts because I'm one of six. And so we would go to this art fair and each spend a dollar or two on these little, we called them stump faces, they were like these little type of characters all made out of wood or other things, just little Swedish decorations.
And so I look back on that thinking like, wow, that's so funny that my parents made sure that we had saved up enough money because it was important for us to think of Christmas as a time that we're giving to other people. And that sort of caring about what the other person is going to have on the receiving end. And the giving part of it I think is, of course, a really important part too. Even if it's small things like cookies or a card that kids can write for someone else.
Melissa: I love that. See, I don't think today we do enough of that. I think as parents we give, give, give, but we don't ask for anything in response from our kids. Right? I think that act would be another really important thing to get them sensitive to listening to others and having to purchase some presents of their own, with either their savings or with money given from mom and dad. But just the fact of having to think about what someone else might want, I think is a very important exercise for them.
One of the other things we ask our kids to do is look at some of the toys they have and for every one they receive, finding something they may have in their stash that they don't need anymore that they can give up. And the fun thing about that is, I don't know about your kids, but my kids love nothing more than wrapping. It's like one of the most fun activities and it's hard. It's difficult, depending on the shape of the toy. We find those toys and then we take a lot of effort to actually wrap them, like beautifully wrap them.
Dr. Jenny: Are they all Melissa and Doug toys?
Melissa: No, they're like the cobbler's children . . . they don't have a lot of Melissa & Doug. But they wrap them up and then we bring them together to either a shelter or a toy drop and they can feel that sense of satisfaction in seeing sort of where they're going and seeing sort of how they're going to be gifted to people. That's pretty important.
Dr. Jenny: Yeah. And I think for families that don't have a lot of financial flexibility at the time of the holidays, there's so much with just art, music, and cooking together that I think are such universal ways that kids feel important. They learn a sense of meaning and tradition and storytelling that happens during those times. And they also learn about designing something for someone else. If it's a little card that they make or cookies for someone else or just the shared feeling of like, "Oh I'm going to get this special music out because I know my grandma always loves it."
So it doesn't need to be a material object. The fact that there's forethought and you are thinking about someone else's mind. And that's a theme I'm going to come back to a lot in this podcast, is the idea that when you are thinking about someone else's thoughts, about what they like, about what they care about, about why they might've done that weird behavior they just did . . . that is called mind-mindedness or mentalization it's called in research, and it is a huge, huge factor in kids' empathy, in having secure attachments and relationships, and it's really important for problem solving.
Dr. Jenny: You can become a more flexible thinker the more you can take other people's perspectives. So this is kind of a nice mind-minded way of not just being me-focused at the holidays, but actually being other-focused.
Melissa: Yes. I couldn't agree with you more. I think the other thing about the holidays and being together is games. I do not think there's anything more fun than being with your family playing games at the holiday.
Dr. Jenny: Even a deck of cards.
Melissa: Yes, definitely a deck of cards. We have so many fun games we play and that's the thing. It doesn't have to cost a lot. It doesn't have to be the hottest new game. Literally some of the fun, most fun, funny moments we've ever had are playing these silly games as a family, where we pair up as teams and you have a young person with an old person. So their level of humor is different and we go on for hours and we're just rolling on the floor . . . or a big jigsaw puzzle that we all build together. It's really the simplest of things, but —
Dr. Jenny: It's really collective.
And I mean, I think that that's also a lot of the foundation of this podcast is very much about collective experience of parents or the collective experience of families that helps as a buffer to the stress that kids experience. It really helps to improve children's health outcomes and their developmental and mental well-being, because they have a sense of meaning. I know who I am, I know how I'm feeling, and I know that I have people who love me.
And so, we're going to mention funny things like, yeah, doing Mad Libs during some of your downtime. It may seem silly, but it is actually one of those things that makes you have to think about what is someone else thinking, and what's going to happen when we put this all together. And then all having a laugh together is actually really one of the most important aspects of parenthood.
Melissa: Yeah, I think that is an endangered resource at this point in time. I feel like we are all craving, especially the kids with the way the world has sped up, with the pressure, with the increase in scheduling and the increase in technology . . . we crave that family time so desperately. And I feel like our kids are begging for it. So I know when we play those games, and we have those game nights and those family nights, they seem to cherish them more than they ever have before.
Dr. Jenny: And you know, I think we have a question about how hard it is to create some unplugged spaces and times for that family time.
How can I implement a screen-free week for my family?
Winnie (on phone): Hi, Melissa and Dr. Jenny. This is Winnie from West Melbourne, Florida. I have two children, a 2-year-old and a 15-week-old baby. I know screen time is a constant worry with parents, but I wonder how can I easily implement a screen-free week or day for every member of the family and not be met with resistance?
Dr. Jenny: Okay, so creating an unplugged day or week . . . well, let's say you had a day where you had a bunch of different family members coming over. I'd recommend giving people a heads-up when they show up, let them know there's a place where they can put their device. Make it humorous. Talk about how, you know, we all actually want to see each other's eyeballs and talk to each other. The more you can diffuse the judginess that can come from people's differences in tech styles, the more you can just help diffuse it and make it more accepted.
It's really important to have some replacement activities, because people are using technology because it's entertaining, it's giving them information, it's helping them play a game. It somehow feels rewarding or maybe they just don't want that kind of awkward downtime of seeing relatives they haven't seen in a while. So what you can do is just create a game. It could be board games, it could be telling jokes, it could be playing Mad Libs, it could be something else that's getting everyone involved and is really facilitating some of the interaction that people find a little awkward and might be the reason that they're kind of withdrawing into their phones in the first place.
The other key to unplugged times is planning it out ahead of time. And then kids don't mind it as much. You don't hear as many complaints when they actually realize how awesome it is to do all the other things. When you're actively trying to pull the tablet out of a child's hand, that's where they can't imagine doing anything else except that game, because they were just in the flow, right? They were just in the middle of that game that was giving them candy and stars and rewards and it was making them feel like life is as easy as matching the letter A to another thing, right?
So apps and games for young kids put their brains a little bit into autopilot sometimes and they're built with all of these sticky reward-driven features that make kids want to stay on and want to keep playing and keep playing. So in the very moment when you're trying to cut out the screen time, that's when it's going to be hardest, because your child can't pause and think as rationally right then. But what it, so that's why it's really important to plan it in advance and know what alternatives will be there for the child.
Melissa: I completely agree. You know, I have six children, and I think this is the hardest thing that I grapple with, because they range in age from 11 to 26, and they all have technology and they all, if left unchecked, they would probably be on it for the majority of each day. So for me it's been about showing them the joy of activities that don't involve technology. And I think all of us have forgotten about that, to be honest. I think we crave it yet we don't know how to engage in it easily anymore. And the holidays especially is a good time to do it. But it's hard. I find myself working really hard to divert them from it. Now when I do, it's really effective. For example, we talked about games. We have some incredible games we play, we get involved in a game of Monopoly, and it's like we're playing for hours and hours and they love it, and they want to play again and again and again.
Or we go outside and we do a scavenger hunt, like a family scavenger hunt, but creating that scavenger hunt, you know, takes some work. So I think this is where we are in society that the problem today is if you make the concerted effort to get kids off their devices, it is going to take some work on your part. And so many of us don't have the time to do that. And we will try rather feebly to say, "Come on, let's do this." And when they say, "Nah, I'd rather not" . . . it's like we give up, because sometimes it's too hard. But I do think we have to forgive ourselves. We have to be kind to ourselves and we have to realize it's the little steps that make a difference. Maybe it's not the whole day.
So last Thanksgiving we made a pact, we said no one will be on technology. Anyone who comes to our house the whole day. And we had a basket where everyone put their phones, they put it in and it was great for the first, like four hours. But by 2:30 I started to look around the room and there were a few people who had their phones. It was like, "Wait, you put your phone in that basket, what are you doing with your phone? You're not supposed to be on it."
Dr. Jenny: Did you ask them what they were on?
Melissa: What they were using?
Dr. Jenny: Yeah.
Melissa: I saw what they were using. They were searching the news. They were searching sales, they were texting. I mean just nonsense stuff. So I was very upset at first because I made such a plan, it was so intentional and I was, like, really angry until I said, "Okay but they were off it for like four hours. No one was on it and we were doing really fun things. So you know that's a start."
And it sort of showed them how fun it is to not be on it. But I've learned not to go for the week, but to go for those small moments, to go for the car rides when you say, "You know what, no technology in this car ride." To go for the meals, where we have a basket [for devices]. Our meals are cherished and nobody is on technology. And you know what? That's better than nothing.
Dr. Jenny: I think you've raised two important points. One is that technology now is such a subconscious part of our minds, and that researchers talk about it being like another appendage. It's so built into your sense of identity. It's so built into your sense of how you consume information about the world, that it really is hard to get away from it for more than four hours. But what we've seen in one of my studies, where we were observing families in fast food restaurants, we basically did anonymous observations, where we went in and took field notes as if we were anthropologists and we watched families to see who brought out a mobile device and what happened when that happened.
And the parents who brought out a mobile device and just checked it and quickly did something and then put it away, that didn't really seem to matter. There was still plenty of conversation that happened at that meal. There was still plenty of back and forth, the kind of a reciprocal connectedness.
It was when the parents brought out a mobile device and then stared at it and looked at it and engaged with it for the majority of the meal . . . And I'm not saying this about your home meal times, I'm saying it about the whole idea of it, of Thanksgiving is that if you have a couple little interruptions here and there, but then you're able to put it away again, then hopefully that's not as disruptive as when it comes out and it just becomes the norm.
It becomes the new background, the new way that we're just all kind of diving into our parallel virtual environments rather than being co-present with people who may drive us a little crazy. I mean that's what's hard about the holidays is that you sometimes are getting together with family members who may trigger you in some ways or they are —
Melissa: This could be a whole episode in and of itself. Let's hear it Jenny!
I know, and so people find a lot of stress relief by going to their phones as well. So just being aware of that aspect of your relationship with your phone and being able to say, "Why am I doing this? Could I go do something else that could make me laugh or that could make me feel connected rather than just kind of going to find some celebrity gossip that'll take my mind off of this?"
Melissa: I also find because we're not as used to forging those relationships organically, that sometimes the kids need that icebreaker to want to play together. And it takes us saying, "Come on guys, let's all go outside and start a game of tag." And that we have to be the spark to ignite that, that sense of fun and play and wonder, and that's okay.
I mean, maybe a generation ago they would've just done it on their own. But because we've been so trained to be robotic and sort of respond to technology and we don't know how to sort of start something. I've noticed with my kids, there will be five or six cousins together who don't see each other that often and they'll kind of just be sitting there a bit standoffishly looking at each other like, "What do we do?" And it takes that spark.
But then once you give them that little catalyst, 15 minutes later you look and they're running around and they don't want to leave. The last time all the cousins were together, we had that initial phase where they were kind of looking at each other like “who are you,” because they hadn't seen each other in maybe over a year. And then by the end they were literally like, "Can they sleep over? When can they come over next?" And they just played for hours. And it was so wonderful seeing that.
Dr. Jenny: For the person who sent the question about trying to establish some screen-free days or times, I think one of the take-homes is have a few things in your back pocket that you know you can pull out when you see the kids sitting around being like, "I'm bored. I don't know what to do next." Here's a deck of cards, there's a football, go throw it around. Here's a joke book, here's something else that can get them in a group activity that's so easy to facilitate.
And having lots of patients with autism spectrum disorder, I know that there are some activities that really set you up for success in terms of a social give-and-take. Social give-and-takes are hard for kids on the spectrum because they get overwhelmed with a lot of social information. They may not be able to read the other person's social cues. They may feel a little bit overstimulated or maybe not use the expected response.
But when you give them some structure and you say, "Look, he's going to say this, and you're going to do this." If you just sit down and play a game of Uno or something else where there are some rules and there's some back-and-forth, it can really increase their social confidence.
It’s a similar thing with a group of kids who are just looking bored. If you give them something that has some of those built-in design features — and this is where the design features of toys really matter — you have a toy that's designed to really help with back-and-forth, you have to do it as part of the game that's going to help with social togetherness. If you have an object that's designed to be used all by itself like a smartphone, then that's going to not elicit as much of that back-and-forth and togetherness.
Melissa: I totally agree with you. Parenting today, we started by saying, is so much more difficult, and we have to be intentional. And I think we have to have tricks up our sleeve for the times when kids want to go on their screens and, you know, we call them inspiration baskets. They don't have to be costly or anything, but just having that go-to container of stuff that you can give to your kid when they're giving you the old, “I'm bored.” One basket might be a crafting one, and I'm talking things from around your house, just spools and buttons and things like that. One is a game basket, with balls and cards and things like that.
Dr. Jenny: We used to have a bin that was stuff that we could have recycled, but it all had weird shapes and stuff or cords and we called it the “robot construction box,” and then when we had one of those periods of downtime, that was something we could do.
All the things you're listing right now are things where the child generates the idea. The idea of what to create or what to do next comes from within the child. And that's why we care about this so much. Because when children have that sense of "Ah, I can construct an idea, I can follow my own plan and get to the other end,” that's important from a brain development perspective in terms of our executive functions. It's really great when you get to school and you can have an idea and follow it start to finish. But it's also a sense of self. It's a sense of this mastery of something that wasn't fed to you by a simple game that someone labeled as educational that's on the app store. It's more this kind of creative generation of a product that they came up with themselves.
Melissa: Yeah. So coming full circle back to play. I mean that is the definition of play, right? It's engaging in things with your own self volition that make you come alive and really become the essence of who you are. And I think if kids can't do that on their own, it's sort of our job as parents to help them to get to that place, so they can see how incredible it can be.
Mastering “Distress Tolerance,” a Milestone for Parents
Dr. Jenny: But the thing for parents to take away from this is that we know this is not easy. And when you get to that painful point when your child is bored and you're like, "Oh, I just want to turn on the TV and let this all go away." That becomes a point where it's not just about what the child needs to do, it's also about what the parent can do in that moment. So I'll sometimes have a little mantra where I'm like, "This'll pass, this'll pass, he's being annoying. But this will pass." Like, "Okay, I can handle this." And it's that distress tolerance in parents that actually is a really good skill.
It's a parenting milestone that you yourself have to master. You can tolerate your child's whining and distress, and you don't have to give into it, and you can be like, "No, you got this. Look, here's that box of spools and thread and all that other stuff. And here's the robot construction box." Or, "Here's a pen and paper. Draw me what you're dream house would be."
Something that is a totally low-tech answer to boredom and may be hard the first time because children aren't used to initiating from within. They're used to being told what to do by lots of different adults and grownups or technologic structures. But it's worth the practice of trying it over and again, and you may need to jump down and be like, "Oh here, I'll draw the first piece. I'll draw the head. Now you draw the body. I'm going to draw horns next. What are you going to do? You draw wacky hair." And then it can turn into something that you're giving them a little bit of a lift to get past that boredom, push past it, and actually you know, create.
Melissa: I don't think either of us is saying these things are easy. In fact, every day we struggle with these issues and trying to get our kids intoxicated by play and off of technology. But you know we're trying and I think that's all we can say is we are trying, and we are fighting the fight every day, and that's what we want you to do too. We want you to do that and we want you to share your stories, your strategies, your victories, your challenges with us.
Dr. Jenny: Yeah. And this is not something that we expect you after each podcast to suddenly have mastered all of these parts of parenting. This is part of the trial and error and the struggle and the growth that you go through as a parent. And it's worth the struggle because on the other end you come out as knowing yourself more, understanding your kids more and feeling more equipped when they get older and become actual adults, which is scary to me because my kids are younger.
What we'd like to do at the end of every podcast is have a few ideas of things we've talked about this week that maybe you can try, up and leading until the next podcast, and we want to hear from you about whether it worked. Were you able to try to create an unplugged day, where there was no technology, where there were alternate activities? How much did your kids complain about that or did they like it, because you were off your screen?
Did you feel like there were some gift ideas in there that could help you kind of tone down the perfectionism around gift-giving and actually make gift creation a little bit more about mind-mindedness, about understanding someone else's mind and connecting with them and you know, kind of carrying it forward as activities that you could do every day during your holiday break?
Melissa: And what did you do together as a family? That's what I really want to hear. Did you bake together? Did you play games together? Did you wrap gifts together of toys that are no longer used? I mean let me know. I'm desperate to hear those things.
Dr. Jenny: And then don't make them perfect stories. We don't want Pinterest-perfect stories. We want messy, happy, funny, you know, whatever worked, whatever didn't work.
Melissa: So share these things with us. We're on Instagram and Facebook and we can't wait to hear from you, and let us know how we can better serve you, because that is our goal here. We are hoping to connect with you, to help you and we to better navigate parenting together. So thank you. Now go play!
The above transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Have a question for Melissa and Dr. Jenny? Send it to podcast@MelissaAndDoug.com