Your child’s wish list this holiday season probably includes the latest gaming system, baby dolls, science kits, or marble runs with pieces that will be lost by January 1. Yet, written in invisible ink at the top of this list is something your child desires more than anything else.
What your child really wants is free and exclusively yours to give—your time.
Of course, you are already spending time with your child giving rides to practices, watching swim lessons, helping with homework, and running the countless errands required for presents, parties and surprise sign-up lists at school. From your child’s perspective, although this time together counts for something, it really isn’t the gift of your true, undivided time and attention.
This season, consider squeezing out a little of what matters less and make time for what matters the most for building family connections.
Here are some tips for constructing the perfect playtime gift:
- Set a goal of spending 15-20 minutes together as many days of the week as you can; put it on your calendar as an important appointment. Keep your playtime with your child no matter how the rest of the day has gone with respect to mood or behavior (yours or your child’s)! Your child will come to trust that this time with you comes with no strings, which ultimately leads to more respectful behavior overall. No, you won’t be rewarding your child for bad behavior any more than your partner “rewards” you for being grumpy by sticking to your dinner date plans!
- Allow your child to choose an activity to play. You can write up a menu of acceptable choices if your child tends to be indecisive or chooses activities that are hard to complete in 15 minutes, require excessive clean up or encourage aggression.
Some ideas to get you started: Coloring, drawing, card games, board games, puzzles, blocks, dolls, pretend play, short craft activities…
Activities to avoid: Electronics, complicated games, games that encourage violence, messy crafts…
As you practice playing together more, you will figure out which activities work and which ones take too long or lead to an inevitable meltdown or out-of-control behavior. It’s ok to modify the list as needed. And yes, you have to play with dolls or race cars even if you hate it!
Of course, you can set limits on aggressive or very inappropriate behavior. Play that is dangerous or disrespectful can lead to a warning or simply ending the play time and letting your child know (in a calm voice) that you will try again the next time. Minor infractions can be overlooked, however. For example, if your child wants to ‘cheat’ at Candyland by having the play piece go straight to the top to eat all of the candy in the castle, then just say, “Oh you are playing Stella’s way today.” When you play as a family outside of this one-on-one time, you can hold onto your expectation to play by the rules. Kids master the expectations of different situations all the time and won’t be harmed by playing a crazy, unruly way with you. Besides, you will likely learn about your child’s most creative edge when the rules can be tweaked just a little!
- Set a timer if needed to help you stay on track with the time. Expect your child to protest when the timer goes off, or to beg for a few more minutes of your time. Let your child know that you had a lot of fun too and that you look forward to the next time but try to stick with your time limit. Why? This helps your child develop consistent expectations about your special time and makes it easier for you to keep it on your schedule knowing you can still meet your other obligations. Skip all lectures about being ungrateful or ‘ruining’ special time by melting down at the end. No threats to take the time away, just a message of trust that your child will get better at ending your time together.
- No distractions. This should go without saying but no electronic devices for you or your child, no TV on in the background, no throwing in a load of laundry or checking on little brother. Ideally, you would find time to spend with your child when other siblings can hang out with another caregiver, are not home, are sleeping, or are at least engaged in something independently. It can feel strange to play with only one of your kids at a time but each of your kids deserves your time without the predictable interference of a sibling.
- Most Important and Most Difficult: The purpose of your playtime gift is to enjoy each other’s company. Period. No teaching, lecturing, guiding, or even complimenting is allowed! Kids are under the behavioral microscope all day–having just a few minutes off the grid can do wonders for encouraging positive behavior and creating bonds.
What’s off limits?
“That is such a beautiful picture!”
“You are so good at building stuff!”
“Let me show you how to dress her so she matches.”
“If you find the edges we can do this puzzle faster.”
“You are using green on that tree.”
“That tower is 10 bricks high.”
“That dolly has red hair just like you do.”
“We have a rainbow of colors to choose from!”
Think of yourself as an impartial sports commentator. You are simply describing the movements of the moment without evaluation or judgment. It is a lot harder to do than you think! You will find yourself wanting to praise or correct your child but please don’t. When in doubt, echo back what your child says or simply stay quiet. You have permission to say nothing. Kids tend to talk more to people who listen than those who are always telling them what to do and how to feel. Be one of the listening people for your child.
What other gifts come along with your time? For your child—the message of being the most important part of a minute (or 20), feelings of acceptance, the ability to just ‘be’ without judgement, reinforcement of traits that really matter like creativity, a desire to do right by you, and trust that you will be there with your full attention from time to time.
And the gifts for you? Less parenting guilt about how much time you really spend with your child, the chance to discover more about your child’s interests and creativity, how to listen without judging or offering solutions (which comes in handy during adolescence), and maybe even a new appreciation for marble runs!
Who knows, maybe the tradition you start this holiday season of truly spending time with your child is one that will stick around for the whole year!