“Can you read me a book?”
“Will you play Legos with me?”
“Can you color with me?”
“Could we go to the park now?”
My wife and I get requests like this from our kids all day long. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. The barrage of demands seems unending. In the midst of our packed, hectic schedules, it’s impossible to drop everything and give our kids full attention. We want to be good parents, but we just don’t have time to do it all! And saying no every time our kids ask for some attention can make us feel like parental failures. But in my study, reflection, and experience over the years, I’ve stumbled on a few basic principles that might help relieve the stress . . . and enable us to make time for parenting.
First, we parents actually have to commit to spending time with our kids. Some parents dread the thought of actually sitting down on the floor with their children and playing with them. They would much prefer to wait until Junior is in his teens, so they can enjoy more grown-up activities such as watching a ball game or discussing movies. Other personalities prefer to play with little kids and are paralyzed by the idea of carrying on a meaningful conversation with an adolescent son or daughter. They fear long moments of awkward silence or incessant, meaningless jabbering. Forget your fears and commit to spending time with your kids.
Second, if we don’t establish a pattern of spending time with our kids when they are young, it won’t happen when they’re older. In theory, most parents want to spend time with their kids. In practice, though, this doesn’t always pan out. The promise to spend time with their kids just keeps getting pushed off into the future . . . a future that never comes. The kind of relational connection you have with your younger child is generally the kind of relationship you’ll have when he or she gets older. In other words, if you never played doll house with your daughter, don’t expect her to have you over to help furnish her first apartment. Yes, it’s always possible to break this pattern and establish relationships with older kids—but the longer you wait, the more difficult it will be. Don’t wait until they’re older; start spending time now.
Third, though we parents can’t always drop what we’re doing each time our kids tug on our sleeves, we can set a definite time and stick to it. Kids seem to have a knack for seeking attention at the worst possible moments . . . and the younger they are, the worse it is. I’ve lost track of how many times my kids have asked me to look at a book while I was driving 60 miles an hour down the freeway. Crashing the van to spend time with my kids probably wouldn’t get me the parent of the year award. But instead of saying no, we can always give our kids a definite time in the near future. If kids know that mom or dad actually wants to spend time with them, and if we have established a pattern of making good on our promises, the temporary delay will be taken positively rather than negatively. To delay is okay, but to reject is wrong.
Finally, we must remember that kids are more concerned with actually spending time with us than with the particulars of the activity. When your 6-year-old son asks you to play catch with him, he’s not worried about honing his throwing skills so he’ll have a chance to one day play in the major leagues. He’s asking you to take 15 minutes of your day and spend time with him—face-to-face. When your 8-year-old daughter asks you to play Polly Pockets with her, she’s not expecting you to dramatize a three-part script with a plot, character development, and meaningful dialogue. She wants you to be with her, give her some exclusive time, make her feel special. Even working together can be fun and is better than not being together at all. Remember, the time is more important than the task.
Make time with your kids a priority. Don’t delay until they’re older. Set specific times throughout the day to give them your attention. And don’t get hung up on the task but keep your focus on the time. Applying these principles isn’t easy. And none of us can do it perfectly. But keeping these principles in mind will help us make time for parenting.