How often do you say 'Just a minute' to your children? My wife and I found ourselves saying it a lot, as we prioritized our terribly important busyness over our children. More often than not, by the time we were ready, the child had disappeared, or moved on and the moment was lost. A little while ago, I came down from the office and my 5 year old daughter asked me to dance. I was, of course, busy. This time I resisted saying 'Just a minute' and said 'Okay'. We danced, and laughed for about 30 seconds. Then, completely satisfied, she skipped off onto something else.
We were mistaking our childrens' requests for attention for adult-sized requests. More often than not they just wanted a moment - a brief, beautiful butterfly moment of togetherness - and then they'd be off; leaving them and us happy. We are practicing pausing our busyness more often; just for a moment.
Many modern parents spend as much time with their children as ever. However, for many of us busy parents, that's a geographical, not psychological fact. The children are with us, but somewhere else: in Teletubbie Land, WhatsApp or Minecraft; while we catch up on email or housework. This blog is not about having more time with your children; it's about having more moments.
In addition to replacing 'Just a minute' with 'Okay', here are four simple practices to help you to share more moments with your children.
The moment of meeting
Research shows how we celebrate is a better predictor of relationship strength than how we argue. Often our celebrations are passive: on hearing good news, we simply reply, 'Well done. You deserve it!' Better celebrations involve exploring how the person felt, letting them relive it 'How did you feel when you heard the news?' We can apply this to our daily greetings at the school gates.
Sherry Turkle, a leading expert in relationships and technology, notes how frequently expectant children are met by distracted parents, phone in hand. Unintentional though it is, our behaviour signals our child's importance to us. Instead, pause your technology at least for the first ten minutes with your child. Greet them with genuine excitement; and celebrate their day with them, asking them to relive it with you.
Don't walk by
A famous experiment asked trainee priests to walk across town to give a lecture. Some were late, others had time to spare. En route, they passed a man who collapsed in front of them. Which priests stopped? Only 10% of those who were late stopped; as compared with 63% of those who were on time. When we are in a rush we become more self-focused; and so we walk by.
When you are walking by your children and they are building a stick rocket, or a camp with the sofa cushions, STOP. Comment on what they are doing, and ask a few questions. You don't need to praise them all the time; just notice what they are doing: 'Oh, you're building a camp. Where's the entrance?' It takes all of 30 seconds, and creates a shared moment, allowing them to bask in the undiluted rays of your attention, instead of just walking by.
One of the most important practices in being present with your children is the family dinner time. Research persistently shows that the frequency of family dinners is linked to emotional well-being, prosocial behaviour and life satisfaction. Turn off the TV, radio and any digital distractions, eat and talk.
One way of enhancing dinner time is to create rituals. Research shows that rituals can enhance pleasure, because they build anticipation. A ritual can be any, repeated set of behaviours that are performed before, or at the start of a meal. It might be, for example, that each child has the same task to do to set the table; it may be that you all say something before starting to eat. Whatever it is, predictability builds enjoyment.
Immerse yourself in the bath time
How often do we simply process the children through their bath and bedtime routines, eager to flop in front of the TV for 'our time'. It turns out that it's relatively easy to transform these daily tasks into times of joy for you and your children. The clue comes from possibly the most famous research into happiness: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work into flow experiences. He found that we are more likely to experience flow (moments of total immersion and joy) when we are at work. This is because one of the biggest triggers for happiness is when we are stretching ourselves, trying to achieve a challenging goal. Flow doesn't happen when we are going through the motions, or even when we are relaxing.
So challenge yourself at bath times. Set yourself a stretch goal. Aim to make your child laugh out loud at least three times; or make this bath time a creative experience; or challenge yourself to explain, in fun language, how black holes work! In effect, you are making bath times more difficult for yourself; and in doing so, you will immerse yourself more in the moment, and you will both share more happiness.