5 Ways to Make the Most of Weeknights With Your Kids

If you're frustrated that you get only a few hours with your kids, try these simple strategies to optimize your moments, and trust that they're enough.

mother helping child with homework
Photo: Illustration by Bijou Karman

One night when my older son was 12, he said in the cheeriest of tones, "Mom, I've spent more of my life with Mable than with you or Dad." Mable is our nanny, you should know, and if you're counting waking hours, he is technically right.

File that under things that a working parent never, ever wants to hear. We already torture ourselves with that math. On weekdays, we might get just two hours with our kids each morning and two hours at night (depending on their ages), and it's easy to feel teary and guilty if you compare those 20 hours with what the sitter or the day-care center gets. When Serena Williams was a new mom, she lamented on Twitter that she'd missed her baby's first steps while she was training for Wimbledon. What parent couldn't relate? Sure, there will be many milestones as our kids grow, but when you miss one, it rips your heart out.

"Milestones are wonderful, but they're only a tiny fraction of what gives life meaning," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness. "What's most important is that you love, nurture, and support your kids, not that you catch every great thing they do."

And science says we should ditch the guilt: A large study from Harvard Business School published last year found that kids of working moms grow up to be just as happy as children of nonworking moms. In another study from the Families and Work Institute, kids of working parents were asked: If you had just one wish that could change the way your parents' work life affects your life, what would it be? Although the parents assumed that their kids wanted more time with them, the kids actually wished their parents were "less stressed and tired." The takeaway: What matters isn't the minutes that we miss but how happy and relaxed we are in the ones we catch in person. Here's how to approach your family time to make it more rewarding for everyone.

Practice real-world mindfulness.

Research has shown that a secret to contentment is simply taking the time to notice and enjoy the small pleasures in your day—whether that's the cute way your child mispronounces a word or her excitement about taking off her training wheels. "Savoring is really, truly living in the present moment and extracting the maximum positive emotions from that moment," says Dr. Lyubomirsky. You can also reconsider the way you perceive a situation. When you walk in the door, are you feeling grateful that you had a relatively easy commute and at least the little ones are already in their pj's, even if the living room is a mess? Or are you still obsessing over a workplace tiff and guilty that you missed bathtime? "Focus on the now," says Dr. Lyubomirsky, because thinking about regrets or other negative emotions will only make you more anxious and overwhelmed.

If you have trouble shifting gears, congratulations—you're human. "It's very hard to go from the rush of work demands to the rush of kid demands and expect to be 100 percent," says Kate Rope, author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Mostly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood. Some parents find that listening to a podcast or an audiobook in the car on the drive home or doing a three-minute meditation in the driveway before walking in the front door helps them reset. You can find inspiration from apps like Headspace, Calm, or Stop, Breathe & Think.

mother hugging child illustration
Illustrations by Bijou Karman

The goal shouldn’t be nonstop bonding.

Part of the antidote to "Argh, there aren't enough hours in the day!" may be to lower your own bar. "It doesn't take very much to connect with a child, timewise," says Rope. "Ten good minutes can change a whole week."

And good minutes don't have to mean endless rounds of Connect 4 or long heart-to-heart talks. You could quiz your kid for his science test. Isn't it the ordinary hum of a home routine that makes us all feel comfortable and safe?

Find little ways to feel less pressured.

If you don't want to buy yourself time by subcontracting out household chores, consider how you might streamline your to-dos. I've been known to unload only half the clean dishes from the dishwasher so I could quickly get the dirty dinner plates in and done (shh!). Others find it's not about cutting corners so much as tucking tasks into unused minutes in the day. My Irish-immigrant grandmother, who worked in a grocery store, would set the table for dinner before she left for work in the morning. My friend Sue wakes up an hour before her kids to do laundry and pay bills so she isn't distracted by that when she gets home. "Luckily, I'm a morning person," she says. "Rather than having it be a drag, it gives me a feeling of control."

Daisy Dowling, the founder of Workparent, a coaching firm focused on working parents, swears by this trick to avoid getting derailed by your nagging to-dos: Keep a "got it done" list. Yes, you actually use spare moments to jot down all the stuff you've already ticked off. (Sent in book-fair money! Finished work project!) "It shifts your perspective from 'I'm falling down and failing' to 'I do—and accomplish—a lot,' " says Dowling. "Taking the list out whenever you're feeling overwhelmed can restore your sense of calm and pride."

Pull away from your phone.

"Devices really get in the way—they tempt us to respond immediately when we should be present with our children," says Laurie Santos, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale, who teaches the university's most popular course: Psychology and the Good Life.

Of course, the modern work world often expects us to be reachable 24/7, and social media creates a different sort of obligation: It's as if all the friends we've ever known are talking at once, sharing intensely personal, exciting, or troubling news. How could we not weigh in with a "sad," a "love," or a "wow" emoji or a personal message? But trying to be there for everyone, at all hours, can become a recipe for emotional burnout.

Technology also messes with our brain in real ways. "Devices can activate the nonsocial part of the brain that focuses on stimulation rather than connection with others," explains Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and author of Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence. And many kids are reaching the same conclusion. When a second-grade teacher in Louisiana recently asked her class to write about the invention they wished was never invented, four of her 21 students said it was their parents' phones.

There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to taming tech overload. So much depends on the ages of your children and your profession, but more and more families are implementing no-device nights and whole weekends off social media. Other easy ways to get a bit off the grid: Switch your iPhone to Do Not Disturb at night and turn off notifications on your apps. (I did this after getting pinged with one too many "breaking news" alerts about Ben Affleck's love life.)

Tune in to the power of touch.

What happens when you nuzzle your face against your baby's delicious belly? Or touch heads with your tween as you read books in bed? "The social circuitry of the brain is activated—that sense of being a part of something larger than yourself," says Dr. Siegel.

Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to help premature babies gain weight faster and ease pain and anxiety in children of all ages. In fact, a recent study found that just touching a loved one's hand not only reduces stress but also makes your heart rate and brain waves sync up. So giving your kids a quick (or long!) hug when you walk in the door can actually help you bond on a physiological level.

And it pays to keep the snuggle time coming. "I even hug and cuddle with my 17-year-old son," Dr. Lyubomirsky says. "Parents often assume their boys don't want to be touched once they're 10 or 11, but they do want physical affection." In my house, my younger son will call for a group hug and we'll all come in for a football-style huddle.

As a working parent, sometimes you just can't be there. Serena had a good excuse, training for Wimbledon and all—and so do the rest of us. The magic of loving a child so much is that you can find milestones in their smallest moments. (Ooh, her first sideways-butt-dragging crawl! His first lost front tooth!) And remember to count your blessings, says Dr. Lyubomirsky: "In the big scheme of things, what matters is the health and happiness of your family."

hands reaching for tacos illustration
Illustrations by Bijou Karman

The Ritual That Connects Us

"We just instituted Friday night as a device-free family taco night. No screen time for any of us unless we're watching or playing something together." —Melissa Gunning, digital editor; Alameda, California

"Every night before we say our prayers, my husband and I sing the 'Skidamarink-a-dink-a-dink' song with our 5-year-old and our 2½-year-old twins. We do the hand gestures and giggle, and it's all kinds of fun." —Jessica Peavy, veterinarian; Smithfield, Virginia

"I trace scenes from my life on my 11- and 6-year-old daughters' backs in bed at night to give them a soothing touch and share something about my life with them." —Kate Rope

"My 9-year-old, Tova, and I watch baking shows together. We also like to have 'chitchat' at bedtime in which I tell her embarrassing stories from my childhood and she opens up about how her day went." —Robin Meyerhoff, corporate communications executive; Oakland, California

"I run with my 7-year-old on weekend mornings, and it's great. She asks me questions the whole time." —Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky

This article originally appeared in Parents Magazine as 'The Working Parents' Guide to Weeknights."

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