Time. We often don’t have enough. Sometimes we end up not having enough time for things that are really important. Like our child. Especially if we are talking about quality time. Many believe that quality time means always offering our child something new, something more meaningful, so they run from event to event, from adventure parks to playhouses, from petting zoos to puppet shows.
Sure, experiencing new things is important but it’s often not what children want. They don’t necessarily want us to play board games and puzzles or do arts and crafts with them for hours. All they want is to slow down and simply spend some time together. Time not ruled by our smartphone, tablet or laptop, not burdened by chores or worrying about problems. Time when we submit ourselves to actually being with our child and giving them 100% of our attention.
Dr. Harvey Karp, an American paediatrician, gives a striking analogy in his book “The Happiest Baby on the Block”: parents are like rock stars to their kids. Children love nothing better than being with their parents, so in order for them to be easier to manage and well-behaved, they must be given several short but concentrated periods of attention during the day. The author simply refers to this as feeding the spiritual parking meter:
“The basis for this analogy is that if you feed the parking meter regularly, you will definitely not get a fine! So if we ’feed’ our children several times a day with a dose of happiness and attention, it will make them better-behaved automatically.”
The book gives a graphic example: a mother had to spend around 40 minutes cleaning before playing with her son. They had discussed this in advance but the child could tolerate less and less that his mom was not paying attention to him. So the mother stopped cleaning after 20 minutes, which prevented the child from starting to misbehave. She spent five minutes playing with him, filling up the “spiritual parking meter”, then she finished the dishes and afterwards they could spend half an hour playing peacefully.
I often use this trick myself. I work from home and my daughter sees that mom is present but does not pay attention to her, so I tested this method. I realised that when I stopped working from time to time and spent 10-15 minutes playing and talking with her, she calmed down, got energised and played by herself just fine for a while again. And I could get back to my duties.
When I notice that she is about to get bored, I quickly get up and give her a hug and then usually she is the one telling me that it’s time for her to go back and play. Sometimes she comes by for a hug and runs back to do “her things”.
According to the book, in order to raise a happy, cooperative child, dosing extra time continuously is a more effective method than any other educational or disciplinary tool.
What counts as extra time though?
Undivided attention comes first. Don’t forget what Harvey Karp said: we are our kid’s rock stars. Think about it like this: if you were given undivided attention by someone you idolise, you’d be flying without wings. The good news is that regardless of their age children are exactly the same. And this doesn’t mean that we have to chain ourselves to our children 24/7. But if we pay attention to the child regularly,we fulfil their cravings, which in turn will make them more balanced. Let’s see some examples:
- Just sit down and listen to the child! Be genuinely interested in what they do, instead of just nodding while drifting off and thinking about your next day at work.
- Wave! If they are running around at the playground but meanwhile your mind is on something else, still remember that it’s important for them to know that you are watching how clever and skilful they are!
- Sometimes just be amazed with what your child is doing! Your raised eyebrows are signalling to them that you recognise what they are accomplishing.
- Csodálkozzunk rá néha arra, mit csinál éppen a gyerek! A felhúzott szemöldökünk számára egy jelzés, hogy elismerjük, hogy mit csinál.
- Give them a high five or shake their hands! Children love this too.
- Caress and hug the child as often as you can! This goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Maybe it sounds a bit silly but children love it when you comment on what they are doing. If they are playing with Lego blocks or with their doll, you can provide both recognition and praise this way, which will make the child aware that you value their efforts.
Let’s stop here for a moment because this is important: praise the activity, not the child! If they are helping out in the kitchen, thank them for completing the task at hand and do not celebrate them as the best kitchen hand in the world. Because it’s possible that it won’t be the same the next day. Praise them even if the results are not the best, value their effort or that they are taking their task seriously. It’s difficult to avoid, but do not use “derogatory praises” such as “it’s great that you made up your room but why did I have to ask you a dozen times before you did?”
Dr. Harvey Karp says:
“Think about praise as a good recipe: take a good portion of pasta (undivided attention), a portion of yummy sauce (praise and encouragement) and a pinch of delicious cheese on top (cheering and celebration).”
Of course, the best way to feed children’s “parking meter” is by playing. Children need outdoors play, creative play and storytime every day. Try to be a part of at least one of those regularly! Your daily schedule will influence what this will be but be aware that these are irreplaceable experiences for children. If you can only make time for half an hour of puzzles, that’s fine. The main thing that should be a part of your daily routine with your child for as long as possible is storytime. Cuddling and reading books or telling stories at bedtime is the best way you can be together. It’s hard to overcome that kids today prefer watching cartoons on tablets or phones, on TV or DVD. If you can, do pay attention to end every day with a story read by you or created from the events of the day. Don’t settle for anything less! A rock star wouldn’t. And there you are: you found an easy-to-achieve, irreplaceable quality time that you can enjoy together every day.