Like every working parent, I am often confronted by the question, “When is your ‘me’ time?” If it’s not some third party asking, looking incredulously at my ridiculous schedule, I’m asking myself (looking incredulously at my ridiculous schedule). Over the years I’ve been persuaded of the value of “me” time, and these days I do take it – even if it’s just five minutes in the morning to meditate or take a walk. And on very good days, I make time to go punch things.
Then there is all the talk about how couples – especially busy working parents – need to find “us” time, to reconnect, to remember that our relationship is not just as comrades-in-arms against the rising tide of work, kids, homework, housework, and the thin little strands of sanity that, on a good day, tie it all together. Again, I have taken the advice, and am amazed to report that my husband and I do manage to find some considerable chunks of time throughout the week to just hang out and be human. It’s great.
But there’s a third category that I don’t get much haranguing from the outside world to focus on, and I’m growing to suspect it’s equally important. Yes, I spend plenty of time with my kids – getting them ready for school in the morning, making and eating dinner at night, carting them around to activities, running errands – but how much time do I spend every week just “being” with my kids? Not much.
Like the “us” time we (try to) spend with our partners, there’s a difference between working together toward a common goal at a frenzied pace, and spending focused leisure time with the people we love. When I was a kid, they used to call it “quality time.” Perhaps the phrase fell out of favor because of how often we ridiculed it. Or maybe parents are so focused on their kids’ life experience these days that we’ve come to think of all helicopter-parenting time as “quality time.” I would argue that it isn’t.
Gary Chapman identifies “quality time” as one of the Five Love Languages, and says that in order to express love through quality time, it is essential that you NOT be multitasking. (And, in fact, research about multitasking independently shows that it tends to result in not doing any of your multiple tasks particularly well.) That means that no matter how many great conversations you may have with your kids during the weekly trip to Costco, that time doesn’t count.
For a long time, my go-to was bringing my kids to do fun activities on the weekends, like going to the museum or even the library. It seemed that carving out a big chunk of my busy weekend to do something entirely focused on them was an excellent contribution toward my QT quotient.
But then, last night, I told my daughter that I wanted to make it a priority to do at least one kid-focused thing as a family every weekend, and asked what she wanted to do this weekend. She did not suggest museums, or libraries, or swimming, or even going to the zoo. She said, “Let’s stay home and play house.” And that’s when I realized that even the totally kid-focused activities in my QT arsenal still involve multitasking.
Quality time with kids is about focused attention – on the kids, not on any other thing. Even reading books together, while certainly very valuable, involves focusing attention on an outside source of stimulation. I was never much of an athlete, but I remember how enthusiastic my brother used to get when my dad would offer to go outside for a catch (baseball, football -- it didn’t matter). I think that counts. Here in Colorado, going for family hikes is another good option – as is going for walks pretty much anywhere.
For my kids, the pinnacle of quality time is imagination play – something they can do for hours together on their own, but occasionally ask us to participate in. Admittedly, I have been pretty reluctant to get on the floor and play house with my kids. To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to get myself out of my own head – the running to-do list of work and other demands; the never-ending barrage of emails and text messages – and into being the magical veterinarian to whom the Marine princess brings her ailing unicorn. But I’m beginning to realize that that’s precisely why I need to do it.
As much as modern kids can hang with the craziness of the technology-enabled fast-paced lifestyles we all engage in these days, it’s not their natural state. This is their time to learn about the world, which means there’s very little they take for granted or don’t notice – and that level of attention takes time. To truly engage with them on their level, we have to slow down – a lot. Which, I am the first to admit, isn’t easy. But I’m beginning to realize how necessary it truly is, not just for them but for me too.