Play Ball: Parent Bonding

Ever notice the movie/tv trope of a father and child playing a game of catch? It’s meant to show the audience the kind of one-on-one relationship they have.

But why is this scene so common?

I have heard some of my dad friends express their dream to toss the ball around with their kid when they get older. But when I ask why, they are usually unsure of the reason. They just want to. Although that is a fair justification, I wanted to understand why this particular game of catch is important and meaningful to many fathers.

The Anatomy of Catch and Throw

We know that a game of catch does a lot for a child’s development (hand-eye coordination, motor planning, body/spatial awareness, depth perception, the list goes on). But there’s more to it. From an OT perspective, here’s what this simple activity also provides:

  • Social Interaction. Catch is a two-person endeavor. It requires attention, eye contact, and communication (verbal and/or non-verbal) to make the action successful. With every pass, each person adjusts to effectively receive and toss the ball to one another. Once this becomes a simple, repetitive action, playing catch can open the door to open dialogue about feelings, thoughts, or how the day has been.
  • Rhythm and Timing. Catching and throwing involves rhythm and timing, not only from the individual, but between the people playing it. That developed synchronicity creates connection with each other. In addition, the repetitive action gives way to predictability and flow which provides a sense of safety and promotes regulation. In this bubble, memories and conversations can happen.
  • Mentoring Moment. Kids have the skills to catch and throw successfully around the age of 4, but they still need guidance to put the action sequence together. That takes time and patience, requiring both parties to be active, present, and to understand one another. A successful outing can bring praise, build self-confidence (for the parent and child), and everyone’s excited to do it again.

It’s easy to romanticize this beautiful idea of playing catch in the backyard with our kids. We’re just going to toss the ball around, share our emotions, and live happily ever after. That expectation is not always reality, at least not yet. It might turn into the scene from The Sandlot with Scotty and his stepfather real fast.

Remind yourself that this simple game is meant to bond with your kid, not to turn them into pro ball players. It’s easy to get caught up on technique rather than just having fun, especially if you’ve played sports growing up. When we nit-pick every flaw, show frustration when it’s not done right, or not enjoy the process ourselves, all the positives this activity has to offer goes out the window. It’s no longer a teaching opportunity, you’re both out of sync, and no trust has been established.

Beyond the Ball

Although entertainment uses the good ole’ catch and throw cliché to establish a relationship between parent and child, that’s not the only form of bonding that fathers can do with their kid. A ton of Millennial dads prefer gaming with their kids (there’s so many YouTube channels showing this), while others like to build, have Nerf battles, or go on hikes. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re doing something with your child.

A 2020 study found that fathers who engage in physical play with their children have a positive impact on a their cognitive, language, social, and emotional development. This is because physical play, like (but not limited to) catch, promotes the release of oxytocin (the love hormone) which establishes and strengthens the bonds between parent and kid. The study also noted that children who enjoyed quality playtime with their dads were less likely to display hyperactivity or emotional/behavioral issues. They also appeared to be better at controlling their aggression and less likely to lash out at other children during disagreements at school.

Bonded for Life

More than anything, kids want to know that we are in their corner and that we love them unconditionally. They will attempt to bond with us the best way they know how. However, we want our kids to connect with us in a healthy manner and that means creating a positive, accepting environment. For example, consider how often you:

  • Make eye contact with your child
  • Tell them how much you love and appreciate them
  • Relate to their experiences without judgement
  • Join in their excitement, whatever it may be
  • Share a laugh or a good cry
  • Spend quality time with your kid

These moments, as small as they may be, have a huge impact on the bond we have with our kids. Whatever we do with them to build a connection won’t matter if they don’t feel seen, heard, or appreciated.

So how can we strengthen our parent-child relationship? Here are some suggestions:

  • Open communication. Like any meaningful relationship, communication is key. Give your child your undivided attention, especially when they are telling you something that is important to them. Listen and process the information before reacting and respond without judgement. Once they feel that you can be trusted with their thoughts and feelings, the more likely they will come to you about anything.

  • Learn their interests. We know what we’re into, but do we know what our kids are into? They may be curious about our hobbies (yay!), but they might have a curiosity that’s completely new to us. Exploring each other’s interests lets your child learn more about you (because you are more than a parent) while you get to learn more about your child as they figure out who they are. For instance, my 6-year-old enjoys Lego building just like me. However, he’s recently been fascinated about space, which means I now know way more about our galaxy and what’s in it than I did before (planets, moons, asteroids, dark matter, where does it end? Where does it end?!) The whole bonding experience should be child-led, so don’t be dismissive if the activity isn’t quite what you had in mind.

  • Quality-time. This is that one-on-one time where both of you are invested in each other (that means distractions are put away). Set aside time to hang out; how you choose to spend it is totally up to you. The only thing that is required is your presence. This also goes both ways. If your kid is doing something and doesn’t want to drop everything, that’s fine and no offense to you. You can pick a different time window together.

  • Be on call. As your child gets older, their schedules get busier (and so does yours). Let them know that you are available to talk should they ever need to, or if they need a hug, or just want to spend time with you.

  • Play the long game. Bonding with your child is not static. It starts the moment they’re born and continues well into their adult years. Tummy time on the floor leads to walks to the playground, then sharing hobbies, going to big events and more. It will go through its ebbs and flows, requiring refinement and thoughtfulness as they grow. As long as your love and appreciation for them stays constant, then your bond will be just as good (if not better) as a game of catch and throw you see in the movies.

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Related Posts:
Child(ish) Q&A: When will my kid be fun?
Role Models: Raising a Mini-Me

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