One of the best reasons to start your own parenting column is so that you can freely disregard the advice of others. Let’s start with this idea of giving “special time” to each kid.
I must be the only one who thinks the very name “special time with kids” is faintly creepy, like something out of a painful childhood memoir. Putting that aside, the basic idea of special time, as promoted by countless parenting articles, is that you set aside fixed times each week, or day, to spend 10-15 minutes, or 30-60 minutes, with each of your children individually. That’s right. While the other four children are running around the house setting things on fire, I’m supposed to carve out up to an hour each day, per kid, prescheduled and unbreakable, to focus exclusively on the remaining one. A lot of these articles suggest that we’re actually going out to eat together for a heart to heart talk. Yep that’s right. Me and the three-year-old are going on a date every week.
Now heaven knows that I’m easily guilted, so I tried this when the kids were younger. Aside from the problem of, I don’t know, time and exhaustion and lack of supervision for the other children . . . . this still didn’t work on so many levels. I think the core problem is that I am just not that interesting. If we were going out somewhere, the special kid would always ask, “Can the other kids come?” If we were playing a game, same. Half the time, they’d be busy with something when it was time for special time and I was actually interrupting. They were not so into pouring out their hearts on cue. Special Time soon joined the trash heap of well-meaning but nutso ideas.
Still, the sentiment behind Special Time is great. How can you make sure your kids feel special and valued by you? Here’s how we actually do it around here.
· Hugs and affection. Lots of hugs. Greet your child in the spirit of an excited puppy. Call them the most wonderful “Mary” or “Tom” or “Liza” in the world.
· Respond! Really work at engaging with your child when they want to engage with you. Listen when they want to talk. Try to say yes when they want to play a game. If you do this even half the time, your child’s perception will be that you “always” have time for them. Even thirty seconds of your attention when it is wanted can be enough to generate this special feeling in your child.
· Look for clues for what makes your child feel special. Mother’s and Father’s Day cards are your gold mine here. Why are you great as a parent? If your card says “My dad makes pancakes with me,” do more of that. If it’s “My mom gives hugs,” do that.
· Notice and affirm. Look for what makes each of your children unique and affirm them based on what their values are. If your child values loyalty and friendship, affirm him on that (“You are really kind and loyal to your friends and I think that’s special in someone your age.”) If she values creativity, or bravery or persistence, affirm that. You will know you hit the right button when your child’s whole being lights up that you saw what they are trying to do and be in life, and that you noticed.
· It doesn’t have to be even. Kids have different needs for attention and will thrive on what they need. It’s more important that you try to respond to what you observe your kids asking for than trying to make your time “even.”
· Don’t go nuts. Remember, your kid is not your spouse. They don’t really expect an exclusive relationship with you, at least after that uncomfortable “second child is born” period. Why did you have multiple children if not to have them entertain each other? Work within your own energy level and just do the best you reasonably can. If your kids seem happy and well adjusted, you’re probably already good! A little individual attention goes a long way.
To me, scheduled “special time” falls in the category of hyper-parenting that puts too much pressure on already good-enough parents. With a more relaxed approach, doling out small bits of attention as needed, most of the time you spend with your kids can be a special time, not just for them, but for you.