Most parents agree that time is their most valuable (and scarce!) commodity. The demands of work and family life can easily consume every available moment, leaving even the most well-intentioned mothers and fathers feeling tired and frustrated as they try to get everything done.

Children feel frustrated with the not-enough-time problem, too. We hear their disappointment - and sometimes their fury - as they try to figure out, "When CAN you listen to me, Mom?" "Why ISN'T this a good time to play, Dad?" "When will you NOT be 'too busy'?" No wonder so many child behavior problems - interrupting, fussing for attention, fighting with siblings - can be traced back to the not-enough-time problem perplexing children and parents alike.

A solution to the "not-enough-time" problem

Fortunately, many families have found a very reasonable and do-able solution to the "not-enough-time" problem. Children, as we know, will always crave their parents' attention and companionship. Yet, just a little regular one-on-one time with parents can satisfy those needs. Because for children, it's not the quantity of time, it's the frequency and the quality of time that matters most. Ask a child what kind of time they like the best with their Mom or Dad, and they'll tell you: "Time when it's just the two of us, time when Mom or Dad only pays attention to me and time when we get to just play and have fun!"

Making plans to share a few minutes every day or so to play with their children reassures parents that they don't have to break the "time bank" or somehow find an extra hour in the day to meet their children's needs. Instead, they can use these few moments to loosen up and focus solely on their child. Dedicating these brief but precious occasions to enjoy each other's company means so much to children that many families have come to call it their Special Time routine.

What makes one-on-one time so valuable?

Children treasure Special Time because it gives them the answers they've been looking for: "Special Time is when my Mom can give me her attention." "Special Time is when my Dad will play with me." "Special Time, basically, is when I can count on my Mom or Dad to give me all their attention."

Making Special Time as much a part of the family routine as baths, pajamas and dinner relieves children from the pressure of trying to tease, beg or "act up" to get their parents' attention. When children learn they can count on Special Time, they are freed from the uncertainty that makes it so difficult to practice the patience they need to wait their turn.

Parents also come to value Special Time as they see the benefits for themselves and their family as a whole. The time that used to feel wasted by children's problem behavior is better spent enjoying good times together. The more familiar the new routine becomes, the less time is taken up by whining, fussing and interrupting. Moms and Dads are pleased to discover how willingly their children accept the disappointment of, "Not now, I'm too busy," when they are reminded, "That's something we can do later during our Special Time."

The true meaning of Special Time

Both parents and children come to treasure Special Time together when they experience its deeper purpose. When parents dedicate a few precious minutes of the day to make Special Time part of the family routine, they communicate to their children how much they value them. Moms and Dads also appreciate how Special Time reminds them that being a parent is a great joy, as well as a big responsibility. Special Time gives both adults and children time to relax and enjoy each other's company - which we can all agree is time well spent.

So, how can you get started incorporating Special Time into your family's routines? Below are a few tips to make Special Time easier:

  • Start small . You can almost always find five minutes. Whenever you have more time, you can choose to expand it to 10-20 minutes.

  • Put your child in charge. Special Time requires no adult prepping! Your only task during Special Time is to relax and enjoy being with your child. Your kids get to say whether they want to drive cars on the floor with you, hang out coloring together or just sit outside and stargaze and chat in the dark.

  • Set a timer. The bell is the "boss" that determines when Special Time ends. Jealous siblings quickly learn to wait their turn patiently when they see how the timer allots the time fairly and equally for all.

  • Alternate days and/or people . Two-parent families may alternate who does Special Time each day. Multiple-child families may divide the days accordingly. The longer children wait their turn, the kinder it is to offer them a slightly longer period for their Special Time.

  • Make it part of your daily routine . "Mommy, I know you're busy. Can you do this with me at Special Time?" "Yep, we'll do Special Time after dinner just like always."

  • Relax expectations . For this brief time, take a break from teaching and correcting. If she wants to cheat on Candyland, then maybe today is just one of those days when she really needs to win. You can resume teaching good lessons about playing by the rules after Special Time is over.

  • Make it unconditional . Refrain from offering Special Time as a reward or withholding it as a punishment. You wouldn't ask your children to earn your love, so don't make them earn their Special Time. For misbehaving children, Special Time often hits the reset button, allowing unhappy kids and parents to reconnect again in a positive way.

  • Don't worry when you can't do it for a while . You can always pick up where you left off and resume making Special Time part of the routine again.

Staying connected in a busy world

It's true for both children and adults, that L-O-V-E is spelled T-I-M-E. When most of the time parents and children spend together is filled with the necessary busyness of daily life, it's easy for family relationships to fray and feel less connected. Scheduling just a few minutes of Special Time every day or so is the answer. Families thrive when they create Special Times for fun, laughter and love on a regular basis.


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Emory Luce Baldwin is the author of "Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense" and a family therapist in the Washington, D.C. area. For over 20 years. She has been a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which offers classes and workshops to parents of toddlers through teens. For more information, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.