All caring parents agree that quality time with children is important, but what does that really mean? And why is quality time so important? In reality, the amount of time spent with a child is not the issue. It’s the quality of the interaction and dialogue that occur that are so important. “Quality time” can be defined as time spent with a child during which we are emotionally available to him and bonds are strengthened. The importance of quality time is apparent when we compare the results of just spending time in the same room with the child vs. time spent connecting and bonding—when the child is the focus of our attention.
It’s neither possible nor necessary to be attentive to a child every waking moment, but if parents are seldom or never emotionally available, the results emerge as frequent episodes of unacceptable behavior, tantrums, and power struggles. We all know parents of young children who are completely frustrated by a child’s actions. They search eagerly for some magic tip for controlling his “misbehavior,” believing that misbehavior is the problem. While this is perfectly understandable, misbehavior is never the problem, it’s the symptom of the problem, and it’s the child’s mistaken approach to a solution.
When we observe the result a child achieves by misbehaving, the underlying problem becomes obvious. The result is typically a scolding, delivered with a good dose of uninterrupted time and focused attention from the parent. Never mind that it’s negative; contact and focused attention of any kind is reinforcing to the child. The shortage of uninterrupted time and connectedness is the underlying problem.
Convinced that a child’s behavior is the problem, many parents dedicate themselves to applying consequences. This may be appropriate, but it only addresses symptoms of the behavior rather than its cause. Addressing the underlying problem requires a sincere belief in the child and emotional availability on the part of the parent. The solution to resolving the unacceptable behavior must begin with meeting the child’s normal need for attention and connectedness so she has no reason to resort to disturbing behavior to meet her need.
If parents who are troubled by their child’s behavior spend 5–10 minutes of uninterrupted time with that child two or three times daily, being with him in body and soul, incidents of misbehavior will decrease dramatically. It means turning the radio and the cellphone off in the car so real conversation with the child is possible. It means carving out a few minutes at home when the answering machine intercepts calls and thoughts of work are left on the desk back at the office. Laundry waiting to be folded is put on the back burner. It means listening, really listening, and talking with the child at his level—doing or discussing what interests him without ordering, directing, correcting, or lecturing. When parents make “body and soul” time a priority, behavior improves almost magically. The younger the child, the quicker the response.
I’m reminded of a young mother who came into my office a few months back wanting to know what she could do to control her four-year-old son, who misbehaved “almost constantly.” In addition to being exhausted from trying to keep up with him, she was afraid he would hurt his baby sister. Nothing she had tried discouraged his behavior. We talked about the importance of spending time with him and she said she felt she did spend time with him. She told me she would sit down with him and try to teach him how to play a game, but he never wanted to play and would walk away from her. I asked her to try, for the next week, to spend time with him doing what HE wanted to do, and asking him how he’d like to spend the time. She was convinced that wouldn’t work, but agreed to try.
When she came back for the next appointment, I asked how things were going for her and she started to cry—saying “I can’t believe what happened, he’s like a different child.” She told me that the first time she sat down with him and asked him what he would like to play or do, he said, “I just want you to hold me, Mommy,” and she did—for a full ten minutes. She said neither of them spoke, she just held and hugged him. From that point on, he was like a different little boy and the aggression toward his baby sister ceased. She continued to spend connected time with him throughout the duration of our sessions, and reported feeling much calmer, in control, and really enjoying her little boy.
We discussed the fact that her child had been an only child for nearly four years, and when his little sister was born, his attention was cut in half at best. He was naturally feeling “dethroned” and displaced, as is common for young children who are confronted with a loss of attention, time, and the favored position when a new baby joins the family. Faced with such circumstances, young children commonly react in the only way they know how, which is to behave in ways guaranteed to get the parent to respond. And even though the response may be negative, no one else is getting the parent’s focused attention for that period of time. Whether the issue is loss of time and attention when a new baby arrives, or just not enough quality time and connectedness to begin with, the results are the same. The good news is that by focusing on the child’s positive behaviors, combined with consistently providing short periods of uninterrupted time with a child during which parent and child experience a true connection, the episodes of misbehavior seem to melt away because the purpose for them no longer exists.
We must vow to make quality time with our children a daily priority, or we will spend a great deal more time dealing with the misbehaviors and problems that result. Just 5–10 minutes of uninterrupted body and soul time, two or three times daily, will work wonders. Try it. You’ll enjoy your child and the harmony that will emerge in your home.
Vivian Brault, M.A. is founder of DIRECTIONS, an educational resource celebrating 19 years of support to local families through training for parents and childcare providers. More at parentingpath.com.