Every now and then children get the feeling, in some vague and inarticulable way, that their relationship with their parent has unraveled. And the child who feels this way is the child who no longer asks for attention, but demands it, usually by acting in ways you, you wishful thinker you, thought you had long ago said good-bye to. Your perfect sleeper suddenly decides 3 a.m. is the ideal time to chat. Your happy student suddenly hates school. And your independent little tyke will no longer go to the kitchen by herself, let alone the bathroom. And your child is always, but always, under your feet. Or maybe your little one is throwing tantrums like candy, or expresses his profound distaste, even hatred, for you on a disconcertingly regular basis. Or she swears on all that she knows is holy that she doesn’t need you. Not one bit.
Well, I’ve got something for you. Something of a miracle in fact. I can say that because I didn’t invent it. I learned it from Mary Hartzell, the wise and hugely gifted director of the nursery school my boys were lucky enough to attend. I think she adapted it from Stanley Greenspan's Floortime.
Anyway, Mary used to call it Special Time. It's a plan that works particularly well for pre-schoolers - make that wildly, amazingly, well - but embedded in this little gem is a deep truth about parenting. Everything goes better when we are in relationship with our children, when we feel connected even, maybe especially, when things are happening that make us angry, or anxious, or upset in any of the ten thousand ways the world can catch us up and send us spinning.
So if I you have been struggling with your young child, scratching your head and wondering how you got to this whining, yelling, fighting, nagging nightmare of a place, try this: give your child your focused attention for fifteen minutes out of every day. During that time, don’t answer the phone, cook dinner, or talk to your neighbor. And for God’s sake don’t check your email or, heaven forfend, blog. Instead, do whatever your child wants (within reason of course!). You can read, talk, play cards or house, listen to music, take a walk. What you do is actually less important than how you do it. So put a clock out (or, better yet, a timer) and give yourself over to her with grace and good humor. Have fun with your child and let her know that you enjoy this special time together. And if you absolutely detest playing Hide-and-Seek, take comfort from the fact that it’s only for fifteen minutes. Even I could play Barbie for fifteen minutes if I had to. Mary called this Special Time, but I think you and your child could come up with a name all your own.
It is often the case - but not always - that when little children start behaving in ways that make their doting parents look for body snatchers under the bed something has changed. Something has happened that has made the little person aware of how little power he has. Calling the shots in Special Time restores to him an appropriate sense of power. That’s why it is crucial that the choice of activity is up to him. (Naturally, you can refuse if the request is out of line. We did that once when one of ours suggested we pass the time by pulling his mother’s hair!)
Additionally, the fact that Special Time has a defined beginning and end reinforces the child’s sense that life has boundaries (save the existential crises for later). The fact that you repeat Special Time every day gives her a reassuring sense of predictability. Both will help her feel that, no matter how much it may feel that somehow her life has come loose from its moorings, it really hasn’t.
Special Time is so fun for children that time really flies. So give your child a “two-minute warning” before the time is really up. Then say calmly, “Special Time is over for today.” When he complains (which he will), you say, “I know; it’s hard when Special Time ends.” And if he has a screaming tantrum (you know what those sound like, right?) the first day, hold the line, saying “I loved having Special Time with you too. Aren’t we lucky we can do it again tomorrow?” And that is it.
About those fifteen minutes. You do have them. They are right there in every day. And if you make the time for Special Time, I will go out on a limb here and say that chances are better-than-Vegas-good that you will not have a child hovering underfoot, complaining balefully that there’s nothing to do or repeatedly whacking her younger brother on the head. Instead, you will have a child who feels seen and loved, who knows that amid all the chaos, her connection with you is secure. And in the long haul of the twenty-four hours of a day, you will have more time to attack your to-do list because the child who feels secure in her relationship with her parent is the child who can amuse herself while you, uh, blog.
A few rules:
- If you promise to give your child Special Time every day, you must follow through.
- Special Time is not contingent on her behavior (Thus, you do not say, “If you don’t get dressed this minute, we won’t have Special Time today.”)
- If you have more than one child over age three, the two-for-one deal will sadly not fly. Give them each Special Time. Then sit back and watch the sibling love flow.
I usually make it a point not to use the phrase, “Trust Me” but here I will make an exception. Special Time is really the secret sauce of parenting young children. Children are nothing if not perfect little barometers for the social and emotional life of the family. Pull Special Time out of your pocket when you move, add a new baby to the house, take a business trip, whenever you feel your young child - or your relationship with your young child - is out of sorts.
I don't expect you to trust me just because I tell you to.
Just try it.