I have a confession to make…I’ve always loved my children, but I did not begin as a mom who really liked to spend one-on-one time just being with my children, without any agenda except focusing on what they were interested in. Sure, I’d sometimes get down on the floor with them and their toys—but I would usually do it to say things like, “Let’s play the ‘Pick Up the Toys Game!’ Ready, set, go!” When I first learned about the idea of giving children regular, focused attention it was something the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) called Special Time. From the start, I knew that I was not at all interested in Special Time. After all, I was already a stay-at-home mom with 2 little kids when I learned about it. Wasn't I giving them plenty of ‘special time’ already?! What difference would 10-20 minutes of my one-on-one attention make?
Reluctantly, I finally got started with it. I remember spending the time with my 7-year-old son on the floor playing with him and his toys while my daughter took her nap. The experience was okay, but not earthshaking. My son seemed to like having my attention, and I realized that he had probably been feeling shortchanged since his little sister had arrived on the scene 2 1/2 years previously.
A couple of days later, I was enjoying my favorite way of starting the morning, sipping my coffee and reading the paper. My son asked me to play with him. "Let’s play later," I said," when it's our time for special time. This is Mommy's special time with her coffee and newspaper."
"Okay," he said agreeably, and went off to do his thing.
Aha! Now I got the whole point of special time! Making a daily brief appointment with my son to give him my full-and-undivided-attention meant that he could easily accept not getting my reluctant or distracted attention at other times. He could hear me say, “No, not now…” without whining, pestering, or tantrum-ming for my attention. The knowledge that he could count on 20 minutes of my full-and-undivided-attention later in the day made it possible for him to deal with my brush-off.
With more experience, I began to understand that Special Time was when I was giving my children the most precious gift I had to give them: my time and attention. Carving out a little space in our busy schedule to play whatever they wanted to play with me was solid proof that I was interested in them and that I really liked them.
No wonder children crave so much of their parent's time and attention. No wonder children are willing to go to great lengths to win their parent’s time and attention. And as we all know, when children aren’t getting their parent’s attention in positive ways, they will readily switch to trying to win negative attention.
So why make children work so hard for positive attention? It is the unpredictability and uncertainties of whether a child can win his parent’s time and attention that makes the child try and try and try for it. When "Special Time" is planned, practiced, and repeated on a regular, predictable basis, the child can relax and enjoy it without having to fight or fuss for it. Even the child who "always seems to need my attention," relaxes and is satisfied with much less attention because it is reliable and guaranteed.
And as I discovered, parents also can relax and feel happier with a family “Special Time” practice. Parents can feel confident that their children are receiving frequent proof of their love and affection, and not feel guilty or annoyed with a child who is bothering you. And you can more freely enjoy your time with your children during “Special Time,” instead of feeling resentful when responding to their demands or frustrated by their distractions when your other work is interrupted.
Another benefit I found along the way is that children who have their needs for parental time and attention met through "Special Time," become more respectful of others. Even my demanding toddler learned to not interfere with her brother’s “Special Time” because she knew that her own “Special Time” with her parents was secure. It also helped when my husband and I wanted to have a conversation without being interrupted or distracted. "Mommy and Daddy are having their talking special time right now," we would say, and the kids would leave us alone in peace.
I hope you have an easier time getting started with "Special Time" than me! Don't wait as long as I did to understand how much "Special Time" benefits both parents and children. While this may seem like one more darn thing to add to the busy family schedule, over time you will certainly find that adding a "Special Time" practice to your family makes life easier and more pleasurable for both you and your kids!
TIPS FOR SPECIAL TIME:
Make it planned and reliable. What turns “play time with Daddy” into “Special Time with Daddy” is that it is planned and reliable. You will still share spontaneous, unplanned and spur-of-the-moment fun times. But, let’s be honest. Who decides when that kind of fun time starts and ends? You do. Because “Special Time” is scheduled ahead of time and is repeated on a regular basis, it is like an agreement with a child that this time belongs to both of you.
Keep it short. If it is too long, you will probably want to give up the practice entirely. It is far better to commit to a brief amount of time that seems easy and do-able. You can always expand upon it later if you want to. Ten to twenty minutes is a good place to start. If that seems too hard, start with five minutes. Of course your child will want longer, rather than shorter special time. It is the greatest thing in the world! But “Special Time” has a set beginning and an end. Set the timer and let it be the bad guy. When the bell goes off, you can say, “Oh, the timer says our Special Time is over! Too bad, but I’m really looking forward to our ‘Special Time’ tomorrow.”
Your child "owns" her/his own special time. The child is the boss of his or her own special time, within reason. Think about it. There are 23 hours and 45 minutes every day where the child knows that he is pretty much obligated to have to do what other people want. During “Special Time” he gets the delicious experience of being able to tell the parent, “you build this” or “I’m going to do that.” I’ve even been instructed to “sit there and watch while I play.” Now that is power when a child can tell a parent what he or she is not permitted to do! And it is power that is expressed in an appropriate way at an appropriate time when it happens during “Special Time.”
Special time cannot be used as reward or punishment. It is a regularly scheduled event. There will be times when your child is such an obnoxious little brat you will have no desire at all to give her “Special Time” for heaven’s sake. But “Special Time” is actually an entitlement, not a reward. The disagreeable, discouraged, unlikeable child actually needs the experience of being appreciated and valued in special time even more. See if you can go to a higher plane as a parent, or tap into your inner saintliness, and keep your “Special Time” appointment. You will almost certainly be rewarded with a child who becomes more relaxed, more lovable, and more agreeable.
There will be times when you get out of the habit of “Special Time.” Don’t worry about it, everybody does. There are illnesses, travel, vacations, guests visiting, etc. But get back into the habit, because it really is that valuable as a family practice.