I’ve been blogging twice a week since 2008 and this is the most important blog I think I’ve written–it contains the best parenting tip ever (at least in my experience).

best parenting tip ever-play with your kids

In addition to blogging, I’ve been parenting a long time, in fact over 25 years through four very different kids. The more I parent the less sure I am about parenting advice. What worked for me and mine may not work for you and yours, and quite frankly, I’m not exactly sure how we measure “worked”. I am sure that whatever it is can’t be measured until they are grown. (I also find “know it all’s” insufferable.)

Although I’m leery of advice givers, there is one tip I’ve picked up over the years that I am sure will apply to all families, and I’m sure will “work”.

My #1 Best Parenting Tip Ever

Here it is, based on my 25+ years of parenting: Play with your kids and keep playing with them as they age. Notice I didn’t say something vague like “enjoy your kids” or the ever-popular “treasure them while they are young”. No, now is not the time for vague platitudes; now is the time for active concrete advice, insufferable as that may be. So, there it is my friends, play with them.

Play is like relationship glue. When people have fun together they want to be together. Sometimes we have important conversations while playing, but mostly we just have fun. My goal is to create an atmosphere in my family that makes our kids continue to want to engage as little kids, but more important as they enter the years that naturally draw them away.

What Does Child Development Research Say

I’ll get to the specifics in a minute because as is so often the case in life the devil is in the details, but first indulge me with a brief detour into the research stacks. Yes indeed, not only is my single most important parenting tip based on my long years in the parenting trenches, it is also strongly supported by research. Researchers, bless their hearts, have to use terms like “warm, supportive relationship”(Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000; Steinberg, 2001), “psychosocial engagement” (Grotevant, Wrobel, van Dulmen, & McRoy, 2001), “parent-child relationship quality” (Whitten & Weaver, 2010), but what they really mean is play with the little buggers. The verdict is in: play is a hallmark of creating healthy family relationships.

What Qualifies as Play?

I am not a play purist by any stretch of the imagination. If you enjoy it and your kids enjoy it, then I consider it play. In our house if someone doesn’t like a game (adult or kid), we don’t play it. OK, maybe that is a stretch in the younger years, since I can’t honestly say I liked Candyland and Shoots and Ladders, but I endured them until the kids were old enough to graduate to something more fun for the adults.

Most important parenting tip: play with your children
Find something that both parent and kids like to do and do it at least once a week. And don’t stop when they are teens.

Practical Pointers

  • The more play the better and the type of play will vary, but at least some of your play should allow interaction. Watching a shared show on TV or reading a family book out loud counts, but intermix some play that allows talking between participants.

  • The key is that everyone is having fun, so you will have to experiment with a lot of games to find the right ones.

  • The best games are those that require a mixture of luck and skill, so that younger or less talented players stand a chance of winning.

  • While I think it is condescending for the adults to lose on purpose, it is also important for the parent to not always win. If you are über competitive, stifle yourself.

  • Simplify game night so you are more likely to do it. Make game night the night you heat up a frozen pizza, or game afternoon the time everyone makes their own PB&J, and you break open a bag of chips.

The Devil is in the Details

While my advice is simple, implementation is a bit more complex. Two things are required—flexibility and planning by the parent(s)—the more kids, the more of both.

Making play an important part of your family life requires parental flexibility because in my experience, our kids are less likely to be flexible, especially as tweens and teens. The goal is to keep playing with them as they age and that requires a lot of parental shifting. For example, when our children were younger most Sundays after church when the weather was fair, our family would pick up fast food and go for a hike/picnic in the national forest near our house. I thought it was the perfect combination of indulgence (fast food) and getting out in nature. I loved it!

All was fine until our second child turned around 12 and started complaining that he “hated” hiking. We subtlety added a trip to an ice cream shop on the way home, which bought us another year. When his complaining started again, we switched from general hikes to a quest to try all the swimming holes in the forest. Swimming holes were cool, and he had no complaints no matter how far the hike. When his complaints began again a year later, we more or less graciously accepted that family hikes did not qualify as play since one of our gang wasn’t having fun. (I did, however, give this son unmitigated grief last year when he eagerly went on a hike with his girlfriend and her parents.)

Another example of parental flexibility was with my baseball-loving husband. Playing catch with our kids was a highlight of his week, but as we kept adding kids, he faced a child with poor eye/hand coordination. He quickly figured out that this child would never really enjoy having a hard object hurled at him, so after some experimenting, we found Velcro paddles with soft tennis balls. Everyone loved the new game. Hubby could throw to his heart’s content. Our more coordinated kids could run for the long passes and do diving catches, while the rest of us could stick out the Velcro paddle and stand a chance of “catching” the semi-soft ball. He would have preferred an overhanded pitch of a real baseball to the underhanded lob of a glorified nerf ball, but he bent to the realities of our children.

My #1 parenting tip-play with your kids
Anything that you and your kids enjoy counts as “play”.

The Tradition Continues

Our eldest daughter came home last week after a 3-year stint in the Peace Corps. We were in a celebratory mood, so dinner that first night needed to be special. By mid-afternoon talk had already turned to what game we were going to play after dinner, and because it is my family, the smack talking began at about the same time.

DD#2: So what game are we going to play tonight.

Hubby: Let’s start a new score sheet and new game because I was killing you all on the old games we were playing. What game can we play for six people?

DD#1: Pick any game you want. I can kick your butts on any of them.

As we sat around the table last night laughing, talking, picking on each other (“I see the Peace Corps hasn’t improved your card playing skills”), and playing, I thought about this blog. Advice givers may be pretentious, but this one piece of advice is worth sharing: Pick something you like and your kids like and do it today.

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy

Image credit: 
Vanja Gavrić (child in grass)
Colleen Kelly (family playing monopoly)
Steven Depolo (family soccer game)

First published in 2015; Updated in 2018