Dear Dr Justin,
I work full-time and have a toddler, and am keenly reminded every day of how much I missing out in terms of his growth, etc. Are there some tips you have for people like me on how to make the most of the few hours we have together?
Under the pump
Dr Justin responds:
Every time we say “yes” to something, we are forced to say “no” to everything else. Whether due to financial necessity, desire for adult company, intellectual stimulation, or other reasons, more and more mums are leaving the home to work, and experiencing the same sense of loss you describe.
Parents want to be with their children. We want to see them grow, develop, take their first tentative steps, talk for the first time, and more. But we cannot do it all.
Here are some ideas for working parents to make the most of the limited time that they have with their children.
When you collect your son from day care, spend time right there and then to connect. Find out what he did. Talk about his activities. Let him show you around his experiences for the day. Be guided by him though, and leave if he just wants to go home. Keep the radio off in the car and chat with him, sing with him, and make the commute count.
The emails are pinging. The Facebook notifications are flashing. The texts are dinging. Ignore them. They may seem important, but they can (typically) wait until your son is in bed. Until then keep devices down. The message we send to our children emotionally while we’re messaging everyone else digitally is clear: other people matter more than you do. Our capacity to connect with our kids is crushed by the screen tsunami. Keep devices away until later.
Invite him into your world
When you get home from work it will usually be full-on. There’s dinner to prepare, a bath to run, a house to organise, preparations for tomorrow, and most likely even more work to do. Where it’s possible, invite your son into your world. Rather than sticking him in the corner with his iPad, get him chopping carrots, stirring onions, or running the bath with you.
We easily forget how important touch is for a healthy relationship and a healthy child. Make sure you hug, tickle, and touch. It builds bonds.
Ramp up routines
Predictability makes relationships feel safe, particularly for young children. If your little one knows that when you get home with him, there is a set routine that is easy, fun, and involves you both, he will usually be easy to work with, and your time together will be enjoyable.
Set things up for smooth sailing by drawing up a chart you can follow together (but no stickers). It might include dinner prep, eating, bath, pyjamas, teeth, toilet, story, songs, and bed. All of this routine increases security and safety, keeps your relationship together, reduces friction, and promises you an easy night.
In my parenting programs I encourage parents to offer special nurture at night-time. Talk about sunshine (grateful things), storm clouds (challenges), and rainbows (overcoming difficulties) from his day. Ask him what he’s looking forward to tomorrow. Tell him you love him. Make bedtime super special.
Make the most of the time you have together by establishing some simple and fun traditions. It might be a daily tradition of back-scratches before bed, or a fun wake-up song each morning. It could be a weekly tradition like watching a movie and eating a pizza on a Friday night or having a Super Saturday treat each weekend. You could have a monthly tradition like a camping trip or trip to the same special place.
Traditions build memories, strengthen relationships, establish a sense of identity (this is who we are), and make life fun.
Balance ‘me-time’ and ‘we-time’
As draining and frantic as life can be, creating a strong relationship with your son requires you to sacrifice your ‘me-time’ until he is occupied, safe, and happy (and maybe even sleeping!). Researchers have discovered that parents who invest heavily in ‘we-time’ usually need less ‘me-time’, and have better relationships and higher wellbeing when compared to parents who disengage from their kids. And the children do better, too.
There are no easy answers to this one. It really is all about relationships. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. You’ll make the most of those few hours you have together each night by spending time connecting.
What routines or traditions will you start to make quality time with your kids?