Q&A: Individual time with kids?

How do you work out individual time for each kid? I only have three kids and stress a lot about giving each one their special time. What do you think about one-on-one time with kids?
Good question, Megan, and one I'm sure many parents struggle with, no matter the size of the family. How do you make sure that each child gets the individual attention they need?

I think the first thing that is important to remember is that modern parenting has expectations that would seem bizarre to many of our ancestors, such as enshrining the idea of one-on-one time with each child individually, doing things like going bowling, out to eat or to some recreational event. While these things are good and relationship-building, I like to think about parenting through its history -- how did our overworked ancestors spend time with their kids? How did they develop relationships with them without the modern trappings and recreational events we have today? A somewhat related question is how in the world did their children ever survive without organized sports and the myriad of activities for kids that we think are so important now?

I think as life has gotten busier and we are increasingly filling our kid's time with scheduled activities -- soccer, dance, theater, karate, lessons, tutoring, Scouts, etc. -- we get into the mindset that in order to be a good parent, we have to "schedule" the important things. So we ferry our kids from one character-building activity to the next and then think, "Oh, yeah, I better schedule in that one-one-one bonding time too!"

I personally think that we need to shift our focus as parents. We need to schedule less things in our day and make more time for family togetherness. One-on-one time is good and important, but I think rather than focusing on whether a child has a certain amount of time scheduled with you, it is better to focus on what should be the main purpose of that one-on-one interaction: Does that child know that she is important to you individually?

As I've thought about this issue and how to make sure my children get the individual attention they need, I've realized that most of the important ways my children feel individually loved have nothing to do with whether there are other siblings in the room or not. Noticing the good things my children do and praising their behavior, for example, works even better when they know other people are hearing them praised!

Other times of fostering my relationship with each child are often just moments -- when Katie wakes up from a nap, for example, I always walk in with a huge smile on my face and say, "Yay, Katie's awake!" while she grins back at me. She knows she's important to me because when she walks into a room, I notice her right away. When she comes near me, I hold her and tickle her and sing her favorite songs. My sons know I love them when I ruffle their hair or put my arms around them when we read scriptures together. My oldest daughter knows I love her when I bring home the special ingredients she wants for whatever recipe she's trying next or when I type up the essay she wrote for class. Sarah knows I love her because I say, "Sarah, I like you!" or "Sarah, I'm so proud of how I can count on you to do your five minutes in the kitchen without being reminded." Eliza knows I love her because I take the time to find and bring home dog movies from the library for her to watch (she's obsessed with movies like "Snow Buddies" and "Lady and the Tramp"). Harmony knows I love her when I excitedly pull out her favorite skirt and tell her I washed it for her and she can wear it again. Michael knows I love him because I tease him about his "pirate crew" and read the elaborate stories he writes and illustrates.

My focus every day is on my kids and I think it's possible to feel individually loved even when surrounded by a crowd of people, especially when those people are brothers and sisters who also love you.

This is not to say I don't see value in one-on-one time. I think discipline and talking about negative behavior, for example, ought to be done mostly in private. And my husband and I like to take a child or two with us on some of our Saturday lunch dates. Both of us rarely run errands without one or two kids along for the adventure. Sarah felt so special a few weeks ago when she came along with me to drop off books at the library and I surprised her by taking her for ice cream afterwards. My husband has had great success taking our older kids with him on business trips (See how do you decide who goes on trips?). Lillian stays up later than the other kids and both my husband and I enjoy that extra time with just her. And while we don't do it often enough, one-on-one interviews with our kids can be very enlightening.

But I don't think bonding time needs to be one-on-one to be special. We like to kidnap our kids on their birthdays and take them out to lunch, for instance. I've never found the presence of their preschool siblings to diminish that experience in any way. We also have a "Subway Sandwich" tradition -- every time my kids have orthodontist appointments, we go out and get Subways afterwards. They love it, and it's a great family tradition.

Here are a few of the things I try to remember and do to make sure each of my child knows they are loved individually:

* Remember the value of sibling relationships. My kids are blessed to be loved by each other as well as mom and dad. Nothing makes me happier than to see my kids nurturing those relationships. I'm incredibly grateful for the things my kids do for each other that would be hard for me to do for them. Recently, I've seen my older kids helping each other with school projects, for example. Joey had to do a report on an explorer, complete with a poster, and without being asked, Lillian sat down at the computer and helped him find the photos and facts he needed and then organize it well on the poster board. A week later, when Michael was panicking about a book report he needed to do on a cereal box, it was Joey who helped him search the computer for the perfect "Flat Stanley" images.

One of the reasons we've chosen to do horseback riding as one of our family activities is that it's a great way for my kids to spend time with one another. We have two hours each week with four kids attending, two the first hour and two the second. Depending on who went the week before and what other things are going on that day, my kids get to take lessons with a different sibling all the time. Lillian might be with Eliza one week and Joey the next. Sarah will go with Allison or Michael. We had one time a few weeks ago when there was a conflict the last hour and it looked like Allison would get a turn all by herself with no siblings along. Instead of being excited, she protested that she needed someone to be with her! We worked it out so Sarah stayed another hour with her after spending the first hour with Eliza.

I don't think the value of a positive sibling relationship can be overstated. A parent's love is expected and taken for granted. A siblings' good will has to be earned and their good opinion can mean a lot more to a child. When I help a child with their dish night, they're grateful, but when a sibling does it, they are ecstatic, such as a few nights ago, when Sarah volunteered to help Joey and stayed up with him for an hour working. Both of them were beaming at the end.

Katie, as the youngest, has a huge cheering section for her every accomplishment. She thrives in the attention we all give her. Sometimes at scriptures, she insists on taking everyone's blanket for herself. We all laugh and encourage her as she tries to drag five or six blankets around the room. My husband likes to bring her out in the mornings and say, "Everyone say hi to Katie," and we all wave and say, "hi!" while she waves back with a huge grin on her face. There's nothing like being born into a large, loving family (As the 5th of 6 kids, I benefited from that older sibling love).

And while the younger ones get the attention and love from the older ones, it's also wonderful to see how the older ones thrive on the adoration and hero-worship of their younger siblings. I read a blog post once where the woman lamented that one of the casualties of smaller families these days is that teenagers rarely have toddler brothers and sisters. She said that one of the best remedies for the teenage "no one loves me" doldrums is having a little child around who worships you and loves you unconditionally.

Lillian often comes up with great motivators when she's put in charge, and lately, she's thrown parties for the younger girls in her room for those who do their work well during family work day. The work has gotten done better and faster and the parties Lillian's thrown have been special events.

It's been sweet to watch Katie cuddle up with Joey a few times while we're watching a movie together. He tickles her and she grins or grabs his face. When my husband and I were teaching Primary a few years ago, Lillian and Joey fought over who got to take care of Harmony and bring her with them to their classes. They were always so tender with her.

* Praise and notice children specifically and individually. I don't believe in handing out general praise like "You're so smart!" or "You're so wonderful!" or "You're amazing!" According to research, that kind of praise actually diminishes effort by making kids believe they are so great they shouldn't have to work for anything. (As a sidenote, I was at the library a few weeks ago and there's a face there made from heat-sensing material that kids can draw on. A two-year-old was scribbling on it while her mother clapped and said, "Wow! You are so amazing!" over and over again, when all the kid did was move her fingers around a bit!)

On the other hand, I see great value in specific, individual praise for the efforts children make. Kids want to know you notice them and appreciate the good things they do. I like to point out how happy Harmony is when Eliza shares with her and thank Eliza for doing so. On one of our hikes last week, Sarah fell in love with an enormous boulder she tried to carry down the mountain. After struggling with it for a bit, we put it in the backpack and Joey cheerfully shouldered that burden down the mountain. I praised him for being such a trooper and for doing something kind for his sister. I also made sure to mention it to his dad later that day and told Sarah how blessed she was to have a nice big brother to help out.

Specific praise, rather than generic, tells my kids that they are important to me for who they are and what they are becoming. It tells them I notice them. I notice when Harmony gives a puzzle piece to Katie and tell her, "Thank you for sharing with your sister. That's so nice!" I thank my kids for obeying the first time, for completing tasks I give them, and for the help they provide our family. Don't we all wish people would notice the good things we do?

* Find opportunities to work together. There's nothing better than housework for providing opportunities for parents and children to spend time together. When those interactions can be positive (and I realize they are not always), there's something about working side-by-side that fosters real communication and unity. And while going to do fun things together is enjoyable, there's something so mutually satisfying about being able to look back on a job well done. Last week, for example, I got together with a few women to organize the nursery at our Church building. Joey and Sarah came along and were an amazing help, sorting and organizing toys and helping entertain the other kids who were there. While we didn't do a lot of talking, the transformation of the nursery from a chaotic mess of toys into an orderly, logical place felt great and I could tell both kids felt great about what they'd done (and they enjoyed the work hours I gave them for helping).

I think our ancestors probably fostered most of their relationships through work with their kids, as they taught them skills and worked together to keep the family running. I love how most work engages the body physically while leaving the mind free for conversation and bonding. This summer, I divided the work into three weekly schedules, with me, Joey and Lillian each partnered up with a different younger child for three weeks before rotating. I enjoyed the concentrated time with each of my partners to teach how to do the work and also to enjoy their company.

* Shut off distractions. We have tried to minimize outside intrusions in our family. When we got married, we got a piano instead of a television and while we eventually got a TV and DVD player, we've avoided channel television for the most part (we try to get service or deal with rabbit ears every two years for the Olympics). We don't watch a lot of television, we aren't major sports fans, and neither my husband and I are involved in time-consuming hobbies outside of our family (but gee, that "work" thing my husband has to do can sure take a lot of time!). We are very careful about the extra things we sign our kids up for so they aren't a drain on family time or resources.

* Work to create family traditions that foster relationships. One of our family traditions is traveling. We usually get away on family trips three times a year, with my husband doing an additional Daddy Trip during the summer. We own two weeks in a timeshare that we can trade for weeks all over the country, but we've stuck to the west so far because we can't afford to fly everyone. We love to drive off in our huge van to explore Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and more. We keep it inexpensive most of the time, doing things like hiking, swimming, and exploring. We usually stay in a two bedroom villa with a kitchen and laundry facilities, so we make our own meals and save money there too. The travel thing is something that I've had to consciously decide to embrace because it wasn't something I grew up with (my family was a backpacking and camping one). But I think I now get almost as excited as my husband when it's time for another fun trip. It's wonderful to have a week focused just on making memories like these moments from October's trip to Southern Utah:

As families, we cannot do it all -- we can't sign up for every sport, music, or other activity and we can't have all the hobbies or family activities we see others doing. It's important to focus on the things that make your family unique and special. Our family does horseback riding, running, traveling, rockhounding, and hiking.

* Read books together. We aren't as consistent with this as we used to be, but we do read to our younger kids nearly every day and we've embraced a love of reading in our home. One blessing of having older kids is that when DH or I have too much going on, there are plenty of other readers willing to take our place. Allison and Sarah have been taking turns reading to the littler girls in their room and they love it. We like to listen to books on CD on our trips as well, especially humorous ones like Patrick McManus or Barbara Park.

* Understand that part of teaching children to be mature, loving individuals means helping them to see and understand the needs of others. For the littlest ones, this means that it's not just inevitable that sometimes they have to wait while I tend to someone else's needs; it's also important for their development as compassionate individuals. A large family is an ideal environment to understand that while mom and dad love YOU, that doesn't mean your needs always come first. In the course of life, I tell my kids to wait -- for example, "I'll read your book as soon as I'm done doing Sarah's hair," or "I'd love to do that puzzle with you, but right now, Katie's feeling sad and I need to rock her." Because I do give them plenty of time and opportunity to see that I know and love them, they are very good about understanding that I also have other people I love that need time and attention.

* Be candid, especially with older children, about weaknesses and limitations. If I'm exhausted and cranky, I explain to my children I have very little patience remaining that day. Sometimes they are understanding, but many time they are just kids who continue to wear on my last nerves! If they want me to do something that I just don't have time for, I explain the other pressures on me and try to suggest an alternative. I think it's good for kids to understand that they will not always get what they want when they want it. These past few weeks, Joey has been asking me to make him a Skeletor cloak out of some purple fabric in the sewing room. Since we spent a week on a trip and I had a million things on my schedule for last week besides getting caught up from being gone, I explained to him how much I had to do to get ready for the trip and take care of the other things our family needs. I told him I just might not get to it, though I would try. He was disappointed, but understanding. He asked me again last Monday (when I was facing twelve loads of laundry and a very messy house -- why do kids always choose the most inconvenient times?) about whether I could do a cloak for him. I explained the pressures and other responsibilities I had and told him I would try. I'm happy to report that Tuesday, I was able to take the time to make him a cloak he's very excited about. When I gave it to him, he told me I was the best mom ever and gave me a huge hug. Understanding the other pressures and demands on my time made the gift of the cloak an expression of my love for him and my willingness to sacrifice for him, not just an entitlement.

* Teach that life is not fair, and that parents make mistakes. Kids, especially ages 8 to 11, are naturally concerned about things being equal and fair. They get upset when it seems that someone's getting punished less for the same infraction or that someone's getting special treatment. I am upfront with my kids in explaining that life is not always going to be equal and that while I try to be as fair as I can, I will make mistakes. They may not like my decisions or agree with them, but I'm doing my best and they are expected to respect me. I also take time to explain to them that I'm trying to parent them individually and not equally. My kids are at different ages and ability levels. If you're 11, you're going to be asked to do more work than the 7-year-olds. That's life. I also may not be parenting the 7-year-olds now the way I parented you when you were 7, but that's just the way it is.

* Pray often, study the scriptures, and seek to be worthy of the Lord's Spirit. Of all the things I try to do to make sure my children are nurtured individually, this is the most important. I can't do this alone! I need the spiritual strength and insight I gain as I study the scriptures daily and as I pray for help in my responsibilities. I rely on God's Spirit to direct me in my daily goal of putting my efforts towards the most important things. Some days, that might be creating a clean and orderly home. Other days, I might spend most of my time playing with my children or caring for a child who's having a tough time. I believe that Heavenly Father didn't send me my children to fail. He knows and loves each of them individually even more than I do and I believe He chose them for our family. I comment often to my children how thankful I am that God sent us Eliza, or Joey or "aren't we thankful Katie came to our family?" Each one of them is a gift and a blessing as well as a challenge. With the Lord's help and His direction, I can be directed to know when one of them needs something I'm not providing. I can know what I need to do to help one of them with a particular challenge. I can know when it's time to intervene and work hard to correct some misbehavior and when it's simply time to be patient and allow the child to mature more. I won't always be perfect, but I think, with God's help, I can do well enough that my children will become what He envisions for them.

What are some ways you've found to nurture your children individually? How do you show love in your family? What things did your parents do to help you feel loved?


Anonymous said…
We have just 2 kids right now but giving one on one time can still be a challenge. I also think that children feel love and special even when there are other people around. Our almost 4 year old loves when we tell her 1 year old brother that she was obedient or was a good example. He loves to read with his sister and play with "big kid" toys.
Diane said…
I haven't had time to read this all yet. I will hopefully before bed tonight, but so far I agree 100%. 1 on 1 time is great but the real bonding often comes in groups. I'll have to leave another comment when I finish reading this.
An Ordinary Mom said…
This post is spot on! I think every parent should be required to read it :) !!
swedemom said…
I think this is one of your best posts yet.
Kim said…
I loved this post! It's been some time since I've commented on any blog but I just had to tell you how right I think you are.
On a different note, did your husband speak at EFY up in Logan on Saturday?
Megan said…
Thanks for your insight! It definitely answered my questions. Coming from a family with only one sibling, it is a challenge for me to fathom how to split my time. I love your ideas and especially loved your thoughts on treating children individually rather than equally. I could go on but let's just say you gave me a lot to think about and thanks. :) You're an inspiration.
Liz Wheeler said…

I hope you get your stuff published someday. Spot on and gave me a lot to think about as I went about day yesterday, trying to love my kids individually while being pulled so many directions. I'm always amazed at your energy and optimism with so many demands on you.

My parents did an amazing job with 7 kids making us all feel special. They encouraged us to pursue our interests and supported us in those. We took family vacations and had meaningful family traditions. These bind families together and help children feel they belong to something important.
Kazzy said…
Some great ideas here. I think it would be so difficult with so many kids to give individual time. I suppose you get a good routine and stick with it. I loved your idea about teaching that life is not fair. We have always told our boys that fair means each person gets what they need. It has nothing to do with equality in the details!
3in3mom said…
Love your insights and yes I can see you are being very successful with these things in your family!
Another amazing post, my friend! Would you mind if I highlight it on one of my "making a home" Wednesday posts?

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