Last week I was catching up with an old friend on the phone. Very vintage, I know. She was delighting me with hilarious stories of being home nonstop for 10 months with 3 kids. The conversation quickly took a more serious tone. Although she spends countless hours with her children, balancing working from home and distance-learning, she wasn’t sure that any of that time was doing her any good to build strong relationships with her kids. In fact, she thought that her relationships with her kids might be worse than they were before the pandemic and 10 months of being stuck in a house together.
She is right to be concerned.
Just because we are spending more time with our children than ever, doesn’t mean that we are spending the right type of time with our children to build strong relationships.
In fact, the scientific evidence on quality time suggests that it is what the time looks like, not the amount of it, that is most important for building strong relationships between parents and kids. In other words, quality over quantity.
Not all time with our kids is created equal. There is necessary time we spend together and special time we spend together. Necessary time is the time you spend with your kids where you are doing normal daily activities: driving to events, cooking dinner, cleaning, and managing school. Special time is what scientists call quality time – it is the carved-out moments of focused, attentive time with your child. In special time, both parties are fully present. Special time is what builds intimacy and strong relationships. You must have special time to build a high-quality relationship with your child.
Think about a relationship with romantic partner. Most of the time you spend together is necessary time, doing chores or managing home life. This time is critical. I mean, the garage isn’t going to clean itself and you both need to work together to make financial decisions. But necessary time doesn’t do much to fuel the emotional side of your relationship. Sure, it feels good to work together and check things off the list, but it doesn’t build intimacy. Special time is what improves the quality of your relationship with your romantic partner. A date-night or a vacation together is what makes your relationship stronger, more personal, and happier. Necessary time builds your partnership practically, but special time feeds your relationship emotionally.
As parents, we spend lots of time with our kids in the necessary time category. We help pack lunches, remind them of chores, drive them from place-to-place, and assist with homework. We spend considerably less time with them in special time, where we focus on them exclusively, with no expectations or distractions.
As we begin a New Year, where we all continue to spend lots of necessary time with our children, I challenge you to create more special time with your children.
Parents often mistakenly think that special time must be intense. It has to be scheduled, and rigid, and involve elaborate ideas, activities, art projects, and cooking recipes to make the most of this time.
But special time is not a competitive sport. It’s simply a quiet, often short, period of uninterrupted time you focus on your child.
As we aim to create more special moments with our children, here are some quick tips for making special time possible and successful.
- You don’t have to do it every day. The scientific evidence around special time suggests that it is the quality of it, not the quantity, that matters. Set a goal of having at least 2 special time sessions with each kid during the week. If your schedule doesn’t allow for that, that’s fine. Just make sure that if your special time with your child is less frequent, you make the period of time longer.
- Sessions can be short. Short periods of time that are focused and attentive are better than long periods of distracted time with your child. Aim for 15 minutes of special time during each session. You can take longer periods of time if it works for you both.
- It should be one-on-one. Special time should be a carved-out moment between one parent and one child. It is not special family time. It is not special mother-all-the-kids-time or dad-all-the-kids-time. Those times are important too, but they don’t build up a quality relationship between you and each of your children. You need to take a moment to listen, breath, and interact with each child of yours. This ensures that you have a focused, intimate moment. You want special time to feel exclusive – something luxuriant and treasured for your child.
- Let your child be in the driver’s seat. Letting your child decide what activity you do together during special time is important. It affirms to them that this is important, that their ideas are important, and it allows you a window into their world. Kids vary wildly in what they want to do with this time. Younger kids will want to play a particular game. Elementary age kids or teens may want to play a video game or board game. Older kids may just want to sit and talk. Follow your child’s lead and let them decide. Whatever it is, participate wholly for the entire time. You’ll find that by letting your child become the expert or the person in charge during special time, you will learn more about your child than you do in 8 hours of necessary time.
- Put away your phone and other distractions. Special time doesn’t count if it is not focused. Think how pissed you would be if your partner was on their phone, ignoring you, all of date night. Same goes for time with your child. Unless you are texting each other in a funniest-giphy competition (My youngest child’s favorite form of special time.) or playing a video games together (My oldest child’s favorite form of special time.), put your phone and other media away.
Building a strong relationship with your child will not come over night. But by dedicating a few minutes a week to focusing on your child, you’ll develop a strong, intimate relationship that will be satisfying to both of you.
Sometimes it is overwhelming to think about adding something else to our parenting plate, especially something that involves a time commitment. But during this pandemic, as we all cope with innumerable stressors, spending a few quite moments a week with our children will not just be good for our relationship with them, it will also remind us that our children are actually pretty cool little people. And that will give you much hope as we move through 2021.