The ten o'clock news hasn't even started, but you're too exhausted to watch -- who can stay awake that late? Car pools, lunch bags, after-school activities, dinner, homework, bathtime, bedtime. All on top of your own job (or jobs) and the other realities of adulthood. You have just enough energy left to drag yourself to bed so you can wake early and start the routine all over again. Each day with young kids feels like a week, each week like a month.
Yet as every birthday passes, the years seem to be streaking by at warp speed. Five-month-olds become 5-year-olds in the blink of an eye, and then 15-year-olds. This inexorable march of time that turns babies into big kids is the "other" biological clock facing young couples. Every day brings new growth, new milestones, and new wonderment, but the challenges of juggling our adult lives often prevent us from fully appreciating the delicate nuances of childhood.
We've heard about slow parenting, attachment parenting, and tiger moms. However, over my past 30 years as a pediatrician, I have learned that there is a single truth that applies to any parenting philosophy: Your children need to spend meaningful time with you. They need to see who you are and how you live your life. And in return, they will help you to better see who you are.
When you add up all the time your kids spend at day care, in school, asleep, at friends' homes, with babysitters, at camp, and otherwise occupied with activities that don't include you, the remaining moments become especially precious. There are only 940 Saturdays between a child's birth and her leaving for college. That may sound like a lot, but how many have you already used up? If your child is 5 years old, 260 Saturdays are gone. Poof! And the older your kids get, the busier their Saturdays are with friends and activities. Ditto Sundays. And what about weekdays? Depending on your children's ages and whether you work outside the home, there may be as few as one or two hours a day during the week for you to spend with them.
However, instead of worrying about how many minutes you can spend with your children each day, focus on turning those minutes into memorable moments. Parents often compensate for having such a small quantity of time by scheduling "quality time." Two hours at the nature preserve. An afternoon at the movies. Dinner at a restaurant. But the truth is that quality time may occur when you least expect it -- yes, at the nature preserve, but also in the car on the way to ballet practice.
Try this mental trick to help you readjust your thinking: In the course of a crazy day, imagine your biological parenthood clock wound forward to the time when your children have grown and have left home. Picture their tousled bedrooms as clean and empty. See the backseat of the car vacuumed and without a car seat or crumbs. Playroom shelves neatly stacked with dusty toys. Laundry under control. Then rewind the imaginary clock back to now, and see today's minutes of mayhem for what they are: finite and fleeting.
Not every day with your kids will be perfect, but hopefully one day you will greet their departure with a profound sense of satisfaction because you've given them what they need to succeed and also given yourself what you need to feel like a successful parent. Although I don't know how to slow down time, I do have some ideas about how to optimize the time you spend with your kids -- while they are still tucked into their beds, where you can peek at them before you go to sleep.
Practice Parenting Meditation
When you're overwhelmed with your responsibilities, it's easy to toggle into automatic pilot with your kids. But if your mind is elsewhere during the precious moments you've worked hard to preserve, you have lost your kids' childhood just as surely as if you hadn't spent the time with them at all. Instead, try to stay in the moment with a "parenting meditation," in which you focus on seeing your kids, hearing them, understanding them, and really being amazed by what you've created -- living, breathing miracles of nature who are learning like sponges and growing like weeds.
Take Pajama Walks
The hour before bedtime can be chaotic with young children. One of my favorite techniques to help them calm down -- weather permitting -- is an evening pajama walk. Not only will it give your kids gentle, mellow time to decompress, but it will also give you special moments with them that otherwise might have been lost to TV.
The key to pajama walks is the pajamas. Get the kids completely ready for bed -- teeth brushed, faces washed, pj's on. Then put them in their stroller, or on their tricycle, or in their sneakers, and meander slowly around the neighborhood. No snacks en route (their teeth are already brushed!); don't kick a soccer ball along the way; postpone animated conversations until tomorrow. It may take a couple laps, but by the time you arrive back home, your kids will be in a fresh-air trance and ready for bed.
Have Taco Night
Dinner at home with the whole family is special unto itself, but your kids will be even more eager to sit down together when your meal has a theme. You can have taco night, pizza night, Chinese night, egg night, or pancake night. Turn your kitchen into a sushi bar or an Italian bistro once a week. When kids are excited and having fun, they are energized in their conversation and about sharing their news at the table.
Special dinner nights are also a unique opportunity to increase your kids' involvement in cooking with you. When there are recurring themes for dinner, they can assume a bigger role in getting the food to the table because they'll remember the routine from the last time. While they're washing the vegetables, stacking the tortillas, mixing the salsa, grating the cheese, they may be gossiping about what's happening at school. When they leave the house in the morning, be sure to remind them, "Taco night tonight!" They'll look forward to it all day.
Fix It Together
Never repair a leaky faucet, change a tire, paint the fence, or replace the furnace filter without your kids. Home improvements are a great way to spend time with them while teaching them about tools and life at the same time. The attic, the basement, and the crawl space are all classrooms for learning how things work and how to safely fix things. Give them a flashlight, and talk them through the job you're doing. As they get older, hold the flashlight for them. Instead of dreading things that break, you'll see new tiles, built-in shelves, and paint jobs as bonus chances for time with your kids.
Don't Drive Everywhere
The minutes that we "save" by driving our children a short distance to the neighborhood park or a friend's house are actually priceless moments that we lose in the name of convenience. The next time you need to take your children somewhere nearby, try to get there on foot. Walking with your kids is a great way to slow down the pace of your lives and to have more unscripted moments with them. Talk about where you're going, what you're thinking, what they're thinking, what you see on the way, and who said what to whom in school today. Hold hands if your kids haven't gotten too cool for that yet. If you're dropping them off somewhere (a playdate, a piano lesson, karate class) and would normally drive away and return again later, take along a backpack with work or reading and find a quiet place to wait until they're finished. The hour or two that you have alone in a coffee shop or under a shade tree will help you slow down and stay sane. Then pick up your child and walk back home together.
Play Their Games
If you decide to bring video games into your home, do your best to screen them and even learn how to play them so you can experience this part of your kids' world. Why? First, your kids will "kick your butt," to use their phrasing; this is one activity where you'll never have to let them win, and it's a good thing for children to occasionally see their parents as human and vincible. Second, there will be guaranteed hilarity at your lack of dexterity. Finally, some games have somewhat redeeming virtual reality, because they mimic real-world activities such as table tennis, bowling, baseball, skiing, and dancing (which are certainly much better than games where you blow each other up). But set time limits, lest their virtual realities take over their reality.
Serve Ice-Cream Sundaes and Popcorn
Yes, we all know that there's an obesity crisis in this country, and we certainly don't want to teach our kids to get their comfort from food. However, kids have to be kids, and when kids grow up to become adults and parents (I'm talking about you!), they still need to occasionally feel like a kid.
Establish special traditions around fun treats -- they become more special because they don't happen that often. Hot summer Sunday-afternoon sundaes, or cold winter family TV nights with hot cocoa, or popcorn balls on the day of the big game. Sprinkles make ice cream special, and cuddling goes great with cocoa. Now, please don't go around telling people that a pediatrician told you to feed your kids ice cream with sprinkles; I do have a professional reputation to maintain. So, just for the record, baked apples with cinnamon and raisins, angel-food strawberry shortcake, and banana splits with fat-free frozen yogurt work just as well.
The food is not the point -- it just helps make the point. Fun foods and special treats are conversation starters and memory makers. Your children may not remember all the discussion topics or the jokes or the tickling, but they will forever fondly recall the baked apples and raisins. And, of course, they'll remember the occasions that merited the special treats. And that they shared them with you.
My wife's grandmother was famous for periodically telling her daughters, "Remember, girls, you're having a happy childhood." If you find a way to make the most of every moment that you have with your kids, you will not only be a wonderful parent, but you will also be teaching your kids how to be good adults and wonderful parents themselves someday. Show your children how important your time with them is, and you will be impacting generations to come.
Reprinted with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing from No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years Into Cherished Moments With Your Kids, by Dr. Harley Rotbart. Copyright 2012 by Dr. Harley Rotbart.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.