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My Kid Didn’t Like Me, but Playing One-on-One Changed His Mind

An experiment to get closer to an ornery 5-year-old proves play can make people closer and make others jealous.

Recently, I came to the conclusion that my 5-year-old didn’t like me. When he wasn’t calling me a poopy head and making fart noises at me, he was refusing hugs and straight up ignoring me. Also, he once sat at the dinner table and told my wife, “I don’t like Poppa” apropos of nothing. Naturally, this hurt my feelings. I understood it was likely just a phase, but it was also a total bummer. I’m not going to lie about this, I moped. I didn’t shame the kid or anything, but I gave my wife the old hangdog look more than once.

I don’t know if I was, in doing this, asking that she solve the problem, but clearly she interpreted my baleful puppy eyes as a plea for help because she came at me with a suggestion, a practical solution to a problem of the heart.

“You should try playing with him 10 minutes a day,” she told me. “One on one.”

It took me a beat to realize she wasn’t suggesting I challenge a kindergartener to a game of driveway basketball — though I maintain that I could win that contest by a considerable margin. She wanted me to step away from the other kid, single out the 5-year-old, and get silly.

“What’s that supposed to do,” I asked. (And, yes, I know that sounds passive and sad. It was. I felt shitty.)

She told me that she’d read in a book that 10-minutes of focused play with a kid can go a long way to making them feel loved. The book did not, as far as she knew, make any claims about play sessions making parents more likeable, but I had to acknowledge it was worth a shot. If the worst-case scenario was my son feeling more love from his unlovable father, so be it. Worse things have happened.

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The first trick was getting him to play with me in the first place. Getting the attention of a resentful kid is tricky. But I had a secret weapon: Legos. The kid is crazy for them. When I suggested we build together he was excited, but then he brought out a ziplock bag full of random Bionicle pieces. While they are technically Lego, the crazy robot hardware-like pieces aren’t the best for freebuilding. My kid snapped them together and gave me a vague instruction. I struggled, confused and weirdly out of my depth.

“No, Poppa. See, you look at the shape of the holes. Like this,” he said, taking the pieces out of my hands. “I’ll help you. See?”

His tone was perfectly patient and kind. He sounded like a preschool teacher. A few minutes later he saw me snap a few pieces together. “Good job, Poppa!” he said with apparent warmth. It was the most positive interaction we’d had for months. When the ten minutes elapsed, I let him spin off into his own world.

He still didn’t want to hug me that night.

But I wasn’t giving up. The next day, the family went to a local lake with a swimming beach. While his mother stayed on the shore and his big brother found something else to do, the 5-year-old and I floated out into the deeper water where we had an adventure. He’d pretend to fall off the float and I’d rescue him again and again, while he laughed and grinned. Again, that night, I was not allowed a bedtime hug. But I did get a “Goodnight, Poppa!”

The next day, as we wrestled his stuffed animals, the 5-year-old was more talkative than he’d ever been with me. He told me the names and stories of his stuffies, each with their own unique stories and slightly disturbing violent behaviors. But I refused to judge the fact that his dog named Johnny ate Catty’s head and then pooped it out. I laughed. He grinned. And even after playing, I noticed that the communication kept coming. He’d stopped making farting sounds at me. Instead, he was asking me earnest questions about things he didn’t understand, like why you can’t eat a banana peel. He also started asking me for help rather than defaulting to his mom.

Later in the week, after a few more Lego play sessions, he was responding to me when I asked him to do things. It was as if he was hearing me again. In fact, with less than a full hour of one on one play between us we’d become thick as thieves.

But there was a problem brewing. The last morning of my experiment I was drinking coffee in bed when the 5-year-old came in to snuggle. His older brother was already beside me. The 5-year-old asked if he could sing me a song. “Of course,” I said.

“This is a song I learned in animal school,” he explained before launching into a lilting tune in which the only lyrics were “Life is for you!” endlessly repeated. When the song ended, I told him I enjoyed it very much. Suddenly, his older brother pipped in.

“You love my brother more than me!” he whined, spoiling the moment. I spent the next hour making peace.

Not that I acknowledged it to the kid, but my older boy actually made a good point. I’d made a mistake. I should have been spending alone time with each of the boys. I recalibrated and I’ve been trying to do that every day since that fateful morning. It’s harder than it sounds.

Carving out even just ten minutes for one-on-one play is no easy feat in a world that constantly conspires to keep adults at their desks or in their cars or otherwise occupied. We are regimented so it’s hard to find time for an opportunistic play session. And it’s also hard to get into the right headspace. That said, it is possible and I’ve come to the conclusion that it really works — especially if you’re hyperliteral about it. Reading isn’t play. Activities aren’t play. Only play is play. And 10 minutes is 10 minutes.

My kids could have told me that at the outset, but I suppose I had to learn it for myself. It’s a matter of discipline. After all, playing Pokemon or talking to stuffed animals isn’t always a blast for me. It is, however, always a worthwhile use of my time. If nothing else, it guards against my children theorizing about favoritism and my youngest calling me a poopy head.

The truth is that I’m not a poopy head. I just need help sometimes.