How Much Time Is Enough To Spend With Your Children?

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When you get home from work and your kids get home from school, do you collapse onto the sofa and veg out in front of the TV together? Or, after dinner, do you just have a few minutes left to help with homework? Then, when it’s all done, you and the kids grab your smartphones or tablets to check social media before turning in for the night. How much time do you spend with your kids? Do you think it’s enough? Chances are you’re thinking, ‘I wish it was more.’

Working moms and dads really feel the stress, yet Americans spend more time with their children than anyone else. So why do they feel so guilty about taking time away from the tots? Parents spend more time with their children than their non-working mom counterparts in the 1960s, according to researchers at Bowling Green State University.

They spend so much time with their kids because they believe it helps predict success for their little ones. But it turns out all that time and worry doesn’t make kids happier, less likely to do drugs or be successful. Though there is such a thing as good and bad time spent together — and that does make a difference, the researchers found.

For kids under 6, if you spend time watching TV or doing nothing with them, it is detrimental. So get up off the couch. Researchers found that the more time spent with mom in the teen years, the less risky behavior the teen exhibited. And the more family meals a teen experiences, the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky behaviors, plus they end up with higher math scores.

Here’s the magic number: 6 hours a week is all it takes, in the teenage years. Together as a family, you could do that just on a few nightly dinners and a game night. But don’t overdo it. The American Academy of Pediatrics said for our little ones, they need unstructured solo play time for healthy development.

When parents spend too much time with their children, forsaking their own endeavors and personal, alone time, it stresses them out. They shave sleep to do more for their children, leaving them sleep deprived, feeling guilty, and building anxiety. So go for quality time, not quantity. This research and others have borne out that if parents read with their kids, make and eat meals together, and parent with warmth and sensitivity that all leads to healthy, stable kids not seeking drugs and sex at a young age.

I can’t be the only parent who worries if she is doing enough with her kids on a regular basis, right? Every day I see Facebook updates from friends sharing  what they did with their kids today, on the weekend, and on vacation, and it gets overwhelming. How do they do it all? I can’t take my kids grocery shopping without wanting to leave them in the produce section. A trip to Disney World, nope, not happening. That would be the end of us all.

But recently I realized something that helped me stop worrying and trying to fill my kids’ lives with constant activities. I thought we weren’t doing much, but scrolling through the pictures on my phone was a great reminder that we actually did do a lot. Did we go to Disney World? Well, no, that would still push me right over the edge. But we did do plenty: bowling, movies, family parties, the beach, the library, school plays, sledding, an amusement park, baseball games, ice cream, the playground, the zoo, and a few road trips. We even went to Disney on Ice maybe not Disney World, but it’s the closest I’m getting for a while. How could I consider that “not enough”?

Most of us are doing lots of things with our kids that don’t seem like a big deal at the time. Now that I’ve looked back on an entire year, I know that we didn’t just let the kids watch YouTube videos every day. Don’t get me wrong they watch their fair share but years from now are they going to look back at pictures and remember what we didn’t do, or will they remember the time we went to the zoo 15 minutes from our house? I’m betting on the zoo.

So, fellow worriers, please cut yourself some slack. My kids have probably done more in one year than I did during my entire childhood, so why was I worrying? Contrary to what my Facebook feed might suggest, we’re doing just fine even if we never make it to Disney World.

The problem of children dominating parents in play.

Many of those who are brave enough to admit that they hate to play with their children (or at least that they sometimes don’t like it) have learned from the experts that they aren’t supposed to dominate the play and should allow the child to take the lead.  But they go too far with this idea.

The problem is, the way that children want to play is often not the way that parents want to play.  For one thing, children love to do the same damn thing over and over and over again.  They’re wired for it.  That’s how they learn; that’s how they practice a skill until they get it right.  But parents quite understandably don’t want to do that, at least not with the particular skill with which the child is obsessed.

 

One mom, whose son demanded that she play “Discoball” with him, repeatedly, always in the same way, wrote: “Admittedly, it was fun the first 500 times but now it’s starting to wear thin.” Children also sometimes want to boss their parents in play just for the sake of bossing them. They become little tyrants, and some parents allow that because they think they’re supposed to.

 For example, one mom described how her daughter, in make-belief play, demanded that she, the mother, say only the exact lines that the daughter chose for her, and only at the precise time that the daughter told her she could say them.  The daughter got mad whenever the mom varied her line or said it at not quite the right moment.  The daughter could be creative, but the mother could not.  For the mother, then, this was not play.  The mother was allowing herself to be a human prop, not a playmate.  No wonder she hated it.

So here’s one problem that occurs in parent-child play.  We and when I say “we” I don’t so much mean we dads as I mean you moms have been brainwashed into believing that it’s our job practically every moment to serve our children’s needs, sometimes by telling them exactly what they should do and other times by catering to their every whim.

 In some contexts we are the bosses, because we think we are supposed to boss them for their own good (that’s a problem I’ve described in other posts, such as here). But in other contexts, and especially in play, we mistakenly think our task is to allow our children to boss us.  But bossing in either direction destroys play and ultimately destroys relationships.  Play requires negotiation and agreement, so everyone’s needs are met, not bullying and subservience.

No self-respecting child playmate would tolerate being bossed around in such a way.  A child playmate who got bored after 500 rounds of Discoball would say, in effect, “Either we play something else now or I’m out of here.”  In make-believe play, any child playmate prevented from taking a creative part would protest immediately, and if the protest wasn’t successful would quit.

The ability to express displeasure, to rebel, to quit, is what makes play such a powerful vehicle for social learning (for more on that, see here).  When we allow children to dominate us in play, to be inattentive to our needs and desires, we destroy play’s social value.  We are not doing our children a favor by “playing” with them in this way. We may, in fact, be turning them into spoiled brats.

The problem of parents dominating children in play

The opposite mistake, of course, is for us to dominate children in play, or, at the extreme, to take over the play and leave the children out entirely.  Dads are generally more guilty of this than are moms, but I’ve seen moms do it too.  You start off playfully building something together maybe a sandcastle or one of those horrid Lego kits that is designed for a specific end product and you get into it so much, and are so much better at it than the child, that you take over completely, or you tell your child exactly what to do, so now it’s just your play and not the child’s.

I remember, years ago, when my son was little, we joined a group called Indian Guides, which was supposed to provide bonding opportunities for fathers and their young sons.  One of the activities given to us was the creation of little wooden cars for a “Pine Box Derby.” I assumed that the intent was for the son to build the car and for the father to play some sort of facilitating role such as showing the boy how to use the tools safely and effectively, or how to clean the paint brushes afterward.  I was quite proud of the little car my 8-year-old built, and he seemed to have fun building it. It did seem to be genuine constructive play for him.

But when we showed up at the derby, car in hand, both of us were crestfallen.  All of the other cars were perfectly crafted, beautifully painted and polished.  I was astounded by the craftsmanship of all the other fathers.  It was obvious that the children had played no role at all except maybe to watch or do just a few tasks in accordance with the fathers’ precise instructions.  Maybe the event provided, to some degree, a learning opportunity for the children as they watched their fathers, but it most definitely was not play for them. At any rate, my son and I both felt the strong desire to shrivel up, crawl home, and toss our car a car that looked like it was built by an 8-year old into the trash.

The sad reason why parents today feel it is their duty to play with children

Play should never ever be a duty; it should always be for fun.  Play, by definition, is something that you want to do; so if you “play” with your child without wanting to you are not playing.

David Lancy author of The Anthropology of Childhood and perhaps the world’s leading expert on child-parent relationships throughout the world says that the idea that parents should play with their children is a uniquely modern, Western idea (see his blog post here).  In other cultures, and in ours until recent decades, children always had other children around to play with.  Parents didn’t feel the need to play with children, and children didn’t particularly want to play with adults, because the children had plenty of more interesting playmates other children of all ages.

The adults in such cultures might play, but they would play in their own chosen ways.  Sometimes children would join in, which was fine as long as the children didn’t ruin the play. And sometimes adults, especially young ones, would join into children’s play, just because they wanted to, and that was fine with the children as long as the adults didn’t ruin their play. When adults played with children, it was never out of a sense of duty; it was only for fun.  All this appears to be especially true of hunter-gatherer cultures, according to anthropological reports.  It was also generally true of the communities in the United States in which I grew up, in the 1950s.

Children naturally make better playmates for children than do adults.  They are more likely to have similar interests, similar senses of humor, similar energy levels. They are less likely to be condescending or to try to turn play into deliberate and boring teaching opportunities.  I’ve argued elsewhere that age-mixed play can be especially valuable for children (here and here) for the older ones as well as the younger ones but when we’re talking about someone over 30 playing with someone under 10, that gap may be hard (though not impossible) to bridge while retaining the true spirit of play.

We shame on us have created a world in which children can’t just go outdoors and find children to play with without adults watching and intervening and ruining the play. This is the first time in the history of humanity (outside of periods and places of slavery and intense child labor) that children have not been able to play freely with other children, for hours every day.  Of course we feel guilty about this, and we should.  But we should use our guilt to solve the real problem.  We need to find ways to allow our kids to play freely with other kids, not try to fill that void ourselves, a void we are poorly equipped to fill.

Some fun ways to play with children

OK, after all this, I have a confession to make.  I do like to play with children, and I also have some fond memories of playing with adults when I was a child.  I actually think most adults would enjoy playing with children if they would figure out, along with the children, ways of playing that fit everyone’s abilities and interests.

As part of my research I’ve sometimes watched teenagers play with much younger chilldren (see here), and they are often brilliant at finding ways to play that are fun for everyone.  We can learn something about playing with little children by watching teenagers do it. Teenagers, after all, were little children just a few years ago, and they haven’t forgotten what little children enjoy or how to enjoy some of the same things.  And teenagers aren’t afraid to be assertive and insist on ways of playing that are fun for them as well as for the little ones.

Rough and tumble

Most little children love chasing and rough-and-tumble games with older children or adults.  The adult can be the monster, who’s going to catch the child and eat him or her for breakfast.  The little child squeals in delight as he or she runs away, and the big guy really enjoys the squealing.  Everyone laughs uncontrollably.

Or the adult can lie on his back (usually it is a “he” who plays this way, but not always) and swing the little one up and down with his legs, or vault the little one over his head onto the couch or a pile of pillows or leaves.  Or he can toss the little one up in the air and catch him or her, or give piggyback rides.  In all such play both players are getting great exercise, the little one is enjoying a wonderful thrill, and the bigger one feels the thrill, too, vicariously if not directly.

Needless to say, in such play it is crucial, always, for the adult to be attuned to the child’s expressions of joy or fear.  If fear begins to dominate and joy subsides, you need to back off.  The older one needs to adjust the intensity of play, always, to meet the capacities of the child.  What is wonderfully thrilling for one child might be terrifying for another.

Sandlot-style sports

I have great memories of picnics sometimes they were union picnics (my stepfather was a union man), sometimes church picnics, sometimes gatherings of extended family at which we’d all play some game together.  Usually it was softball.  There’d be women and men, girls and boys, teenagers and little kids.  We followed rules that made it fun for all such as pitching softly to the little ones and novices, or making the strong teenage boys and young men bat with a broomstick and hop on one leg around the bases.  There was something special and wonderful about these games that brought the generations together.  As a kid I wouldn’t have wanted to play that way all the time, but it was great to do so two or three times a year at those picnics.

Family card or board games

A great idea, I think, is to establish some regular evening as “family game night,” in which everyone who wants to plays some game together.  The trick is to find a game everyone enjoys, so everyone will want to play.  In my family of origin, back in the 1950s, the game we all enjoyed most was canasta—a rummy card game that was the rage everywhere then.

We’d have canasta nights, and when we had relatives or friends over they would play it too.  The great thing about canasta is that it involves a certain amount of skill, so it’s not just luck, but the skill is easily enough learned that 7-year-olds who want to can become about as good at it as adults.  There are many other card and board games, also, for which this is true.  Some families I know love to play charades together.  Little ones are often very good at it; they are natural actors, naturally creative, and add to everyone’s fun.

Well, those are a few ideas to get you thinking.  The main idea is this.  If you want to play with your child, be sure to find ways to do so that are fun for you as well as your child.  It should be a joy, not a duty.  You do have a duty concerning your child’s play, however, and that is to figure out how to enable your child to play freely and often with other children, away from adults that’s the bread and butter of child’s play.  Your play with your child is just a special little now-and-then treat, for both of you.

And now, what are your experiences in playing with children, or your memories of playing with adults when you were a child?  Do you have more suggestions for enjoyable parent-child play?  Do you agree or disagree with the thoughts I’ve expressed here?  This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers.

As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

You’re not alone. We’re a nation of couch potatoes.

A recent survey says families are not getting enough physical activity together. When moms spend 10 minutes or more doing something with their children (ages 5 to 18), it’s more likely to be sedentary than active, according to the survey by Woman’s Day magazine and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to combat childhood obesity.

The top three activities moms do with their kids are eating a meal (90%), watching television (79%) and doing homework (65%), according to the survey. Only half of the 1,154 moms surveyed had gone out for a walk, run or bike ride with their kids in the last week and just over one-fourth had played a sport, run around or danced together.

Almost half (44%) of the moms said their children don’t get the recommended seven hours of activity per week. They blame homework, the children’s attitudes and the “draw of the screen.”

There’s a lot to blame, but the result is that rates of overweight and obesity have soared in the United States.

 In 2012, more than two-thirds of adults and more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Consequently, the nation as a whole is not very healthy, especially compared to other countries where people are more active.

“We know that Americans are busier than ever, but becoming more active can help set up families for a lifetime of healthy habits and lowering the risk of obesity and heart disease,” says Susan Spencer, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day. “By partnering with the Alliance on this survey, we learned 67 percent of moms believe it would be easy for them to add an extra 10 minutes of movement with their kids daily.”

To inspire families to get moving, the Alliance launched #Commit2Ten, a social media campaign challenging everyone to add 10 minutes of physical activity to their daily routine throughout September.

The website offers a personalized fitness profile, a 30-day activity calendar, resources and motivation to commit to 10 additional minutes of physical activity per day. I know from experience that life gets crazy when you’re juggling work and kids and their busy schedules. It gets even harder to find time for fitness when school starts and the pace of work increases and the frequency of play decreases.

Plus, when the school buses start rumbling down my street, my melancholy moods roll right along with them. I know that soon cold weather will arrive, and I won’t get out as often to walk or jog or garden or go to the beach. I’ll go to the gym, but I’ll miss being outdoors.

This survey and campaign provide reminders about the importance of committing to activity, even if only in 10-minute spurts. My latest short habit is to do 30 pushups on the sink vanity a couple times a day. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it helps keep my muscles toned and my bones strong.

1.Aim for 12 hugs (or physical connections) every day.

As family therapist Virginia Satir famously said, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” 

Snuggle your child first thing in the morning for a few minutes, and last thing at night. Hug when you say goodbye, when you’re re-united, and often in between. Tousle hair, pat backs, rub shoulders. Make eye contact and smile, which is a different kind of touch. If your tween or teen rebuffs your advances when she first walks in the door, realize that with older kids you have to ease into the connection. Get her settled with a cool drink, and chat as you give a foot rub. (Seem like going above and beyond? It’s a foolproof way to hear what happened in her life today. You’ll find yourself glad, many times, if you prioritize that.)

2.Play.

Laughter and rough-housing keep you connected with your child by stimulating endorphins and oxytocin in both of you. Making laughter a daily habit also gives your child a chance to laugh out the anxieties and upsets that otherwise make him feel disconnected and more likely to act out. And play helps kids want to cooperate. Which is likely to work better?

“Come eat your breakfast now!

or

“Little Gorilla, it’s time for breakfast — Look, you have bugs and bananas on your oatmeal!”

3. Turn off technology when you interact with your child.

Really. Your child will remember for the rest of her life that she was important enough to her parents that they turned off their phone to listen to her. Even turning off music in the car can be a powerful invitation to connect, because the lack of eye contact in a car takes the pressure off, so kids (and adults) are more likely to open up and share.

4. Connect before transitions.

Kids have a hard time transitioning from one thing to another. If you look him in the eye, use his name, and connect with him, then get him giggling, you’ll make sure he has the inner resources to manage himself through a transition.

5. Make time for one on one time.

Do whatever you need to do to schedule 15 minutes with each child, separately, every day. Alternate doing what your child wants and doing what you want during that time. On her days, just pour your love into her and let her direct. On your days resist the urge to structure the time with activities. Instead, try any physical activity or game that gets her laughing.

6. Welcome emotion.

Sure, it’s inconvenient. But your child needs to express his emotions or they’ll drive his behavior. Besides, this is an opportunity to help your child heal those upsets, which will bring you closer. So summon up all your compassion, don’t let the anger trigger you, and welcome the tears and fears that always hide behind the anger.

Remember that you’re the one he trusts enough to cry with, and breathe your way through it. Just acknowledge all those feelings and offer understanding of the pain. Afterwards, he’ll feel more relaxed, cooperative, and closer to you. (Yes, this is really, really hard. Regulating our own emotions in the face of our child’s upset is one of the hardest parts of parenting. But that doesn’t mean we’re excused from trying.)

7. Listen, and Empathize.

Connection starts with listening.  Bite your tongue if you need to, except to say

 “Wow!….I see….Really?…How was that for you?…Tell me more…”

The habit of seeing things from your child’s perspective will ensure that you treat her with respect and look for win/win solutions. It will help you see the reasons for behavior that would otherwise drive you crazy. And it will help you regulate your own emotions so when your buttons get pushed and you find yourself in “fight or flight,” your child doesn’t look so much like the enemy.

8. Slow down and savor the moment.

You aren’t just rushing your child through the schedule so you can spend a few minutes with him before bed. Every interaction all day long is an opportunity to connect. Slow down and share the moment with your child: let him smell the strawberries before you put them in the smoothie. When you’re helping him wash his hands, put yours in the running water with his, and share the cool rush of the water. Smell his hair. Listen to his laughter. Look him in the eyes and meet him heart to open heart, sharing that big love. Connect in the magnificence of the present moment. Which is really the only way we can connect. (For most parents, this is also the secret to being able to tolerate playing that same game, yet again.)

9. Bedtime snuggle and chat.

Set your child’s bedtime a wee bit earlier with the assumption that you’ll spend some time visiting and snuggling in the dark. Those companionable, safe moments of connection invite whatever your child is currently grappling with to the surface, whether it’s something that happened at school, the way you snapped at her this morning, or her worries about tomorrow’s field trip. Do you have to resolve her problem right then? No. Just listen. Acknowledge feelings. Reassure your child that you hear her concern, and that together you’ll solve it, tomorrow. The next day, be sure to follow up. You’ll be amazed how your relationship with your child deepens. And don’t give this habit up as your child gets older. Late at night is often the only time teens will open up.

10. Show up.

Most of us go through life half-present. But your child has only about 900 weeks of childhood with you before he leaves your home. He’ll be gone before you know it.

Try this as a practice: When you’re interacting with your child, show up 100%. Just be right here, right now, and let everything else go. You won’t be able pull this off all the time. But if you make it a habit several times a day, you’ll find yourself shifting into presence more and more often.

Because you’ll find it creates those moments with your child that make your heart melt.

Carefully evaluating both the potential positives and negatives of a full schedule is a great place to start.

Potential positives:

  • Children involved in a variety of activities have the opportunity to meet, work with, learn from, and enjoy many diverse people with multiple perspectives, expertise, and cultures.
  • Many enrichment opportunities and activities not only provide new learning but also enhance children’s core learning. For example, art supports science learning or music supports mathematical thinking.
  • Being involved in extracurricular activities can develop a lot of important life skills and abilities such as responsibility, initiative, team-building, time management, and perseverance.
  • A diverse array of activities is available for children: music lessons, team sports, karate, language learning, and more. All of these activities can enrich a child’s life and expose them to learning and possibilities that might not naturally occur in their lives.
  • For children who don’t always experience success in school, extracurricular activities can provide them with opportunities to find their niche, excel, and build their self-confidence and self-concept.

Potential negatives:

  • When children are rushing from one thing to the other, the learning and benefit can sometimes be lost. Everyone needs time to digest, reflect, and practice new learning before adding more.
  • Unscheduled free time certainly has its benefits as well. Many, including the late Steve Jobs, are strong proponents of unguided creative free play citing that free play builds imagination, creativity and innovation. A busy schedule often crowds out these moments.
  • Sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations of their child’s abilities or performance. The reality is that most children will never win a scholarship, play in the championships, or be any type of prodigy. That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t have high hopes, but they should pair those with fair expectations and unconditional support.
  • Even if your child is enjoying the activities, if the schedule causes you stress it is likely not worth it. Children will always benefit more from a positive stress-free family life than they will from more activities in their day.
  • A busy schedule can impact a child’s overall health. If you find yourself in the drive-thru multiple times a week, extending your child’s bedtime to accommodate activities, or requiring hours of sedentary activity to practice, then your child’s health is likely impacted. These things may not make a difference if they happen once in a while, but sleep, nutrition, and physical activity are essential for learning, physical growth and development, brain function, and health – much more important than Little League.
  • If a child repeatedly excels at a specific activity it can seem like an obvious positive. But it can also be a negative. If a child only experiences winning or success, she may become less willing to try new things, less able to cope with adversity or losing, and the focus may shift from learning and growing to achievement. Additionally, if children focus in on only one activity too early, they miss an array of developmental experiences.

The next step toward making decisions about your child’s schedule is to ask yourself a few questions.

It is important to not only evaluate your child’s needs and experiences, but your own expectations and motivation as well. These questions should be answered for each individual child and at least yearly as they grow and change.

  • Do I allow my child to choose the activities they are involved in?
  • Are my expectations age-appropriate?
  • Am I able to function as a parent and fan, rather than a coach or critic?
  • Does my child enjoy his activities?
  • Is my child able to experience some success (this doesn’t necessarily mean she wins – it means she learns skills, progressively improves, etc.) at the activity?
  • Are the activities intended to enrich my child’s life and future rather than solely focus on a specific achievement like a scholarship or winning a trophy?
  • Do the activities put a stressful burden on me in any way?
  • Does the schedule allow my child to still participate in typical childhood activities like birthday parties, a play date at a friend’s house, or family gatherings?
  • Is my child able to learn and maintain healthy habits such as eating balanced meals, experiencing daily exercise, getting adequate rest, and for older children, keeping up with homework?
  • If my child wanted to quit his activity, would I be ok with that?

Giving serious thought to each of these questions before your child starts a new activity will help you feel more secure about your choices resulting in a “just right” schedule for you and your child. In the end, the best schedule for your child will be the one you create with their unique personality and interests in mind.

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