I have a secret. I am not enough. Yep, not enough. No matter what the self-help books and Instagram quotes say, I will never ever be enough. My kids will always want more. Once I realized I am THAT loved by them, and THAT important to them, I stopped trying to chase the “end.” One more game, one more hug- nope, they will never be filled. This is a GOOD thing. It means that our open channel of attachment, love, and connection is always flowing. It also means I am human and so are they. This is when I started implementing, with fidelity, the simple Positive Discipline tool called Special Time. Counterintuitive, I know, to just tack on yet another session of time and expect to call it good, but there is a nuance to this tool that helps it really land and eases the “need” to chase that attention. Instead, it allows us to turn it from a feeling of disappointment to satisfaction:
an intentional, focused, present state of connection that nourishes the relationship.
Special time itself is just that. It is time that you spend with your child, and each of them if you have more. Then, giving it that name “special” or even upping the creativity and making it personal, you decide together on what you are going to do, ideally letting your child take the lead within whatever framework you are able to give. It can be as big or as little as you want or need it to be, and usually, this has a lot to do with how old your child is. It could be as much as the after nap to before dinner block of each day, or as little as a walk together on the weekend.
“Children seek connection, but will settle for attention.”
-Circle of Security International
Three kids and eleven years later, here is how it has evolved for us.
Regardless of whether you work “outside” the home, or care for your children full time, there is a rhythm and rush to each day. Kids feel this. There is so much to manage and balance that it takes a forced stop to remind us why we are doing it all anyway! I have always juggled the work-life balance and this is where special time saved me. I call it “mama day.” (We also have “papa day” but he isn’t writing this.) During preschool years, it was sometimes a full day (and by full day I mean the couple hours in the morning) or sometimes just an hour after preschool once a week, but that “day” was precious.
I really sunk into their developmental stage and passion and let myself slow down. Sometimes it was painting, or playing endless “dinner party” with stuffed animals, or creating massive Lego worlds. It meant literally being on the floor with them with no transitions or hidden agendas. I made sure I had a big pot of coffee, music I liked to listen to and tried my best to keep my phone away. This had some amazing effects. I was able to stop and observe what kind of kiddo they were growing up to be. I was able to pause the speeding time. Best of all, it gave us a bond during the rest of the week. When I was rushing off to work, or tucking her in, I could reference “mama day” and it would help build delay of gratification and bring a smile to us both.
“Yes, let’s set that game aside so we remember to play it on mama day,” or “I am so excited for our special mama day Friday,” with a little squeeze helped me say goodbye too.
To be clear, I also connected during our regular routines, but there was something about that designated time that gave ME permission to just be present and play.
As our family grew, the need to have each child get quality time became more logistically complicated as you can imagine. Here is where the research comes in. We know that it is not about quantity, but rather the quality of time that matters in a parent-child relationship. We know this from our adult relationships too!
We got creative with special time. For a phase, it was while the baby napped (we just picked one nap during the day) and the big sister got to have me all to herself. Another one loved coming to my Saturday workout where there was childcare, so our special time became the post-workout treat at Whole Foods while we played a card game or just chatted. While there were many times during the family circus that we are alone with one sibling, there is something that kids REALLY hook onto when it becomes that sweet ritual. A word of caution when doing the sibling dance: don’t get hooked by the time factor. Your future attorney at law will love to debate how one sibling gets more time with you
but the reality is that even if you tried to time it to the SECOND, they will still find a way to call it unfair.
Instead, focus on need. We like to say that “everyone gets what they need to be successful” and that does not mean the same thing. It is about equity. (A baby requires a lot of time. A LOT of time! So do middle children.) Focus more on the window or block within your schedule, as opposed to setting the timer.
Making big plans
With this structure in place, it helped include our children in the many events that seem to grow exponentially. Things like birthday parties, holiday events, or even science and school projects, like valentines, can seem never-ending. I love having that weekly time to check in with them and plan. This not only helps grow their executive functioning, (e.g. planning, organizing, and goal setting), but it also has the added benefit of giving them a sense of significance and capability. We have often set aside that special time to just focus on those plans. This year, before coronavirus (BC*), my 2nd grader (and middle) used our “Friday Fun Day” to assess her feelings about certain after school activities, plan her birthday party, and make weekend plans. I picked her up from school with a card game in my bag and we swung by a cafe on our way home. A chai latte for me and a cookie for her and it was amazing how much we accomplished in that short session.
Last year, the only time I had a one-on-one with my oldest was a walk home from school, once a week. Sure we had other times but there was always another sibling in the mix. When we realized this was literally the best we could do, we named it and cherished it. I made sure to never answer a call, to hold her hand, and to listen – without agenda. Looking back, this set us both up for her transition (launch) into being a tween. It was less about what we could “do” and became how we could “be” together. We now crave those walks together and I know it creates both connection and a bridge to communication by the time we have created a loop around the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter how old they get, the special time will be just as important as ever.
Similarly, one year I noticed my middle always got the Sunday blues and was super cranky in the afternoon. We shifted our special time to just a half-hour on those afternoons away from the rest of the family. She decided she wanted us to make a book together, and we drew side by side adding a little to it each week. I found her to be more calm, cooperative and happy after those sessions, which was a win for the whole family!
I like to think of the world now as BC (Before Coronavirus) and AC (After Coronavirus). Now that we are in a current state of sharing space and wiping our calendar clean, special time has taken on a new meaning and opportunity. Even though it may feel like we are on top of each other ALL the time and the last thing we need is one more round of Bingo, I challenge you to shift your perspective.
What if THIS is what you remembered about
this time at home?
The quality time you had with each one of your unique kiddos. Together, pick a day and a small session within that day. Name it, and high five your commitment. When that time comes, let them take the lead and see what happens. Without judgment, assess how it went, and make any necessary adjustments so it feels mutually respectful. Keep tweaking, keep watering, and watch your relationship grow.
Julietta Skoog is a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer with an Ed.S Degree in School Psychology and a Masters Degree in School Counseling from Seattle University. She is the co-founder of Sproutable, science-backed online parenting insights for pregnancy to preschool, helping multitasking and sleep-deprived parents everywhere. Her trauma-informed expertise includes early child development, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, behavior disorders, Positive Discipline, Social Thinking, and mindfulness. Her popular keynote speeches, classes, and workshops in Seattle have been described as rejuvenating, motivating and inspiring.