Some days, it feels like I spend every waking second with my kids.
From the time they wake up in the morning until we put them to bed, we’re together. Whether they’re screeching like pterodactyls while I’m on an important phone call, seeking me out for every little sibling-inflicted injustice, or asking for food every 13 minutes, the constant barrage is well, constant.
Meanwhile, I have my own list of stuff I need to get done. Dishes, laundry, making meals (which means more dishes). Work, conference calls, email. Bills, budgeting, birthday planning. Rinse and repeat, all day every day.
And this isn’t unique to me. Research shows that in today’s world, we parents are spending more time than ever with our kids:
“The amount of time mothers and fathers spend in child care has been climbing since the 1970s. Fathers’ time has nearly tripled from 2.6 hours a week spent with kids in 1965 to 7.2 in 2010. Mothers’ time with children rose from 10.5 hours a week in 1965 to 13.7 in 2010.” – The Washington Post
We’re spending tons more time with our kids, but it’s not like our responsibilities as parents are decreasing to balance that out. If anything, our plates are fuller than they’ve ever been.
And so when one of my kids comes up to me and asks me to play pretend or read them a book or join a quick card game, my knee-jerk reaction is typically some variation of this: “Sorry honey, I don’t have time.”
But Here’s the Problem
With a finite number of hours in the day and an overflowing to-do list, I’m forever trying to get the maximum number of things knocked off my list in the limited time I have.
While I’m doing the dishes, I’m thinking through whether we have enough clean laundry to last another day. While I’m eating lunch, I’m making a list of phone calls to make after I’m done. While I’m sorting through the clutter that’s accumulated on my kitchen counter and multiplied like Gremlins, I’m making a mental grocery list.
So when one of my kids interrupted that go-go-go inertia and asked me to spend a few minutes of quality time with them, I felt absolutely justified in saying no. We spend so much time together already. Isn’t that enough?
But the truth is that in those moments, I’ve been missing the bigger picture.
While it’s true that my kids and I are together a lot, the time we’re spending together isn’t exactly…quality time. I’m always doing something else from the never-ending list in my head. Which means I’m paying only partial attention to the kids when they need something or try to connect with me.
So all that time we’re spending together isn’t giving my children the one thing they need most of all: connection.
Download: Get these Family Connection Cards so you can stop feeling guilty about spending quality time with your child and nurture the kind of close relationship that will stand the test of time – in just 10 minutes a day.
What Happens When Kids Don’t Get Enough Quality Time?
Unfortunately, when kids are feeling disconnected from their parents, that will result in more power struggles and less cooperation when you ask them to do something. Connection breeds cooperation, and disconnection breeds discord.
In other words, when I say no, sorry, not right now, that disconnection can lead to more sibling squabbles, grumbling when I ask for help to fold the laundry, conveniently “not hearing me” when I ask them to pick up their toys, and more.
And yet, as parents we’ve got real, grown-up, honest-to-goodness responsibilities. It’s not like we can just sit around playing LEGOs all day.
Here’s the good news: Not too long ago, I had an epiphany that changed everything for me as a parent. And because of that, I uncovered a simple 10-minute solution to this problem so many parents struggle with. You can skip ahead to the solution here, or you can keep reading the next section to find out the epiphany that led me there.
The Simple Analogy That Made All the Difference
One day a while back when I was washing dishes, my 6-year-old walked up and asked me to play a game with her.
We were literally all out of clean bowls and spoons, so I gave a variation of my standard reply: “I would love to, but I need to get this done. Maybe later.”
She hung her head and shuffled off, dragging her feet.
I sighed. Don’t they realize I’d love to just stop and play? Don’t they know how busy I am? Don’t they appreciate me?!
While I scrubbed dried oatmeal off bowls, I kept wallowing in the hurt.
Then I picked up the crockpot. And as I poured elbow grease into scraping off the previous night’s caked-on curry sauce, an off-the-wall thought hit me: Kids are not crockpots.
With a crockpot, you can spend a few minutes mindlessly throwing ingredients together, hit a button, and your dinner will happily simmer all day. No attention required. When you’re ready for dinner, it’s there, ready to meet your needs and fulfill your wishes.
In a way, that was exactly how I was treating my kids. I expected that I could give them a big bear hug in the morning, then let them simmer in the background all day with no quality one-on-one attention from me.
And when I wanted something from them – for them to brush their teeth without me nagging them 72 times, for them to put their laundry away before the cats knocked over the neat piles and it had to be folded all over again, for them to put away one board game before getting out the next – I expected them to be ready to meet my needs and fulfill my wishes.
Spending Time With Kids Is NOT About Quantity
Even though my crockpot “aha” moment that day was a bizarre analogy, it did help my hurt feelings dissipate. And it made me realize that when it comes to spending time with kids, it’s about quality not quantity. As I later learned, research shows that the quality of time you spend with your child is way more important than the quantity of time you spend.
That day, I decided to test my odd little crockpot theory. I turned off the water, dried my pruney hands, and sought out my 6-year-old.
When I found her at the kids’ art table, she was drawing in a sketch book, the tip of her tongue sticking out one side of her mouth.
“Hey,” I said. “I have a question for you.” She looked up. “I’m going to give you two options, and you tell me which one you pick.”
She tilted her head a little to one side. “Okay.”
“Here’s the first option: Your life is exactly as it is right now. I’m here with you all the time getting stuff done around the house and getting my work done. Because I’m so busy, I don’t have time to play with you. I give you a hug in the morning and I’m there all the time, but we don’t have time to stop and read together or play, just you and me.”
She just stared back, so I continued.
“And here’s the second option: During the day, you and I would see each other three times a day, for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. That’s about enough time to play a game of UNO. And when we saw each other, I wouldn’t be doing anything else except just being with you. We could do whatever you wanted – read a book, play a game, draw together, play pretend. But it would just be for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, three times a day. And then the next time you would see me would be at the dinner table with the whole family. Then we would all spend the evening together as a family like normal until bedtime.”
I paused and opened my mouth to ask which she’d pick, when she beat me to the punch. “The second one,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I raised my eyebrows. “You wouldn’t get to see me most of the day. Just those three times.”
She nodded and grinned. “The second one sounds really fun. We could play so much!”
I stood there, this phrase like a gong in my head: Quality time, not quantity.
“So?” she said. “Can we do that today?”
I laughed. “Sure.”
I sat down next to her and pulled out another sketch book, and we sat and drew together and chatted for 10 minutes. We talked about what we were drawing, how she wants to be an artist when she grows up, and how my “cat” turned out looking more like a hairy foot.
The Important Thing to Remember About Quality Time With Kids
The rest of that day, my daughter surprised me a couple times. After lunch, she cleaned up everyone’s dishes and loaded the dishwasher – without being asked. At another point, she walked up to me, and I thought she was going to ask me for something. But she just gave me a quick hug then ran off to play.
Above all, I noticed that afternoon, she shined a little brighter. Like I’d filled her tank of unconditional love.
And all it took was 10 minutes of stopping and being in the moment with her. She showed me that just 10 minutes of quality time with kids can pay much bigger dividends to your parent-child relationship and to your family as a whole.
But What About Those Moments When You Really Are Busy?
Having a sleep-deprivation-induced epiphany about crockpots and kids is one thing. Shifting your behavior in light of that epiphany is a whole other beast.
I knew I’d need to change something so that I wouldn’t fall back into that same harried mentality that made me say “no not right now” or “I’m too busy” or “sorry maybe later.”
My question to my daughter about what she’d prefer was enlightening. But I couldn’t actually skedaddle away from my family all day long and just pop back in two or three times a day. At least not until I get my dream “she shed.”
But I knew that adding “quality time with my kids” to my never-ending to-do list would just be One More Thing to add to my overwhelm and stress.
To make the most of this epiphany, any change to my daily routine would need to be simple. I’d need to make it automatic, not another task on my list. And it would need to be fun. If at any point, my kids or I felt like it was a chore, that important quality time would turn sour fast.
Want to Spend Quality Time With Kids? This Is a Must
How many times have you set a goal – to exercise more, or to eat healthier, or to stop watching silly reality TV on Netflix so you can get to bed at a decent hour – only to revert back to the status quo after a few days or a couple weeks?
This is where habits will save you. They work because they put your brain on autopilot so you don’t even have to muster up the willpower to do something. You just go through your normal routine, and it happens.
Brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and guzzling that first cup of coffee in the morning are all examples of things you might do on autopilot.
That day, I flipped open my book Happy You, Happy Family to the chapter titled Build the Right Habits to figure out what would work best.
And I found the solution to putting “quality time with kids” on autopilot: a visual cue.
Let Me Explain
Visual cues are a powerful science-backed tool that will remind you of a habit when you’re most likely to forget it.
For example, suppose you wanted to start flossing more regularly. You could put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind you to floss every night before brushing your teeth. Or if you were trying to start a morning exercise habit, you could set your workout clothes on your nightstand the night before.
But spending quality time with your child is a unique situation. Because not only do you need to put it on autopilot in the first place, you also need to know what to do during that quality time.
I could have put a sticky note on my bathroom mirror that said “spend 10 minutes of quality time with kids,” but then the next barrier would be to figure out what to do during those 10 minutes. And yet to keep the quality time fun and not a chore, I’d need fresh ideas every day to keep things interesting for my kids – and for me.
My tired, overwhelmed brain had never proven to be all that great at coming up with fun new ideas on the fly for spending time with kids.
How to Spend Quality Time With Your Child: The 10-Minute Fix
I knew I needed a visual cue to make quality time with my kids into a habit. So one day I sat down and sketched out something called Family Connection Cards.
On each card, I wrote a different quick and simple way to connect with my kids so that when it came time to spend quality time with my kids, I could hit the ground running. I wouldn’t have to think up fresh ideas and figure out the details in the moment because my past self had already done it for me. For each card, I also added a time estimate and the age range of kids it works best with – because we have an almost-teen all the way down to a toddler.
The cards worked so well that I mentioned them to a few friends and family members, and they started asking for a set of the cards too. So I ended up making a pretty version you can print and even laminate if you want. Here’s where you can get your own set of Family Connection Cards.
You can keep the cards anywhere in your home as a visual cue – on your kitchen counter, your nightstand, or next to your phone charger – and pick a card any time you notice your child is acting moody or not listening to you.
But another fun way to use them is The Easter Egg Method.
How to Set It And Forget It: The Easter Egg Method
Here’s how it works:
- Get your Family Connection Cards. These cards remove the mental burden of figuring out the details of spending time with kids. At any point during your day, you can pick a card to get a quick and simple idea for spending time with your child.
- Print your deck. After you get your set of Family Connection Cards here, then print them yourself at home or at an office services store like Staples or Office Depot. You can print them on any paper, but card stock works especially well. Or if you want to save yourself the step of cutting the sheets into 3 pieces, you can print on this ready-made Avery index card template and just pop the perforated cards out when you’re done. Some parents like to laminate their cards, so that’s another option too.
- Find a container. This doesn’t need to be fancy or anything – you just need a way to keep the deck of Family Connection Cards all in one spot. Here are a few things that have worked for other parents:
- Keep the cards together with a binder clip
- Put the cards inside an empty bowl or mason jar
- Hole punch the corner of the cards and stick them on a book ring like this or on a keyring
- Hide the deck. This is where the magic happens! Take the deck and whatever container it’s in, and put it in a place where you’re likely to stumble upon it in a typical day. Think of it as setting up a little Easter egg hunt for yourself, but make it relatively easy to find. Here are a few places you might hide your deck:
- On your nightstand
- Next to your toothbrush
- Next to the TV remote
- In your underwear drawer
- On the kitchen counter (as long as it’s not 100% covered in clutter like my kitchen counter because then the deck could get lost!)
- Next to the coffee pot or inside tomorrow’s coffee cup
- Next to your phone charger
- In the pantry or fridge next to something you eat every day
- Next to your comb or hairbrush
- On top of the washing machine or dryer
- Next to wherever you keep your computer or tablet
- In the silverware drawer
- If you wear glasses or contacts: Next to where you keep them
- If you exercise regularly: Inside your sneakers or wherever you typically do your workout
- Forget about it. After you hide the deck, forget about it and then when you stumble upon it naturally, continue to the next step.
- Pick and connect. When you come across the deck again, that’s your reminder to take a few minutes to spend quality time with your child. Flip through the deck until you find an idea that’s the right fit for your current state of mind and the amount of time you can spare (you’ll even find ideas for when all you have is ONE minute!). Find your child and use that idea to connect with them.
- Hide it again. After you’re done with that session of quality time with your child, hide the deck again. Pick a different place from the list in step 4 above, or get creative and come up with another place you’re likely to stumble upon. Even if all you do is put it back in the same place, you’ll still be carving out quality time with your child once a day.
- Repeat steps 5-7. Every time you find the deck and connect with your child, hide it again for the next time.
And that’s it! You’ll fill your child’s connection tank without adding to your to-do list. The Easter Egg Method puts spending time with kids on autopilot so you don’t have to figure out the “when” and the “what” of spending time with your child.
Some days, you might have just one session of quality time with your child, and that’s okay. Other days, you might up with a handful of sessions, and that’s great too. The point is not to be “perfect.” The point of The Easter Egg Method is to remove the common roadblocks standing in the way of you spending quality time with your child.
Because regularly filling your child’s connection tank in this way is like an investment that pays dividends for the rest of that day – and to the strength of your parent-child relationship for years to come.
Bonus: 5 More Ways to Use Your Family Connection Cards
Every time you pick a Family Connection Card to do with your child, you show your child they’re important and loved, and you nurture a healthy relationship that will stand the test of time.
If The Easter Egg Method doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, here are a few bonus tips for how to use your cards:
- Set an alarm. Set a recurring alarm on your phone for one or two times a day when you tend to be less busy. Then when the alarm goes off, pick a Family Connection Card and spend a few minutes of quality time with your child.
- Bundle it. Use a habit hack called temptation bundling. First, figure out something you love to do that you could bundle with this new habit of using your Family Connection Cards. For example, suppose you love to read, and you look forward to getting the kids into the bath every night so you can sneak in a few minutes of reading. To bundle that temptation with your new habit, you would allow yourself to read for pleasure only after you’ve picked a Family Connection Card to do with your child that day. You could even pick a different card every night to use as a bookmark as a visual reminder.
- Keep or share. Keep the cards to yourself for your own personal inspiration – or share them with your whole family and encourage your child to pick a card when they want to connect with you.
- Repair with five. Science shows that in happy relationships, you need a ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. This is called the Magic 5:1 Ratio. After a negative interaction with your child, grab a card and reconnect with a positive moment or two so you can close the distance between you.
- Banish a bad mood. When your child is acting moody, not listening to you, or acting out, that’s the perfect time to pick a card and connect one-on-one. Remember: Connection breeds cooperation. And when you feel grumpy, annoyed, or irritated, grabbing a card can work wonders for you, too! Sometimes that’s all you need to banish a bad mood.
Frequently Asked Questions About Spending Time With Kids
Below, you’ll find answers to the most common questions about how to spend quality time with your child. If you have a question about spending time with kids that’s not answered here, please leave a comment at the end of this post with your question, and I’ll do my best to get back to you!
What if I pick a card that I can’t do in that moment?
If you can’t spare the time shown on that card, you can always pick another card that has a lower time commitment. A handful of the Family Connection Cards take just one minute, and more than 20 cards take just 5 minutes. (For reference, only 15 of the cards land in the 15- to 30-minute range.)
But if you’re using The Easter Egg Method and in that moment when you find the deck you realize you just cannot spare one to five minutes, you can always hide it again to find a little later on.
I have more than one child. How do you spend individual time with each child?
I have four kids, so this is my reality! That’s why I designed the Family Connection Cards so that most of the cards work well with more than one child at a time. But if you prefer to connect one-on-one, you can set up one child with an independent activity while you connect with another child, then take turns. For a list of special activities that will keep your child actively engaged, check out our epic list: The Best 50 Activities for Kids At Home That Will Keep Your Child Busy + Happy.
What if I try to connect with my child, but they don’t seem to enjoy what we’re doing?
Every child is different, and some kids will enjoy certain Family Connection Cards more than others. If you discover your child doesn’t enjoy one of the activities, just take that card out of the pack and set it aside.
With that said, if you pick a card and it doesn’t feel like the best fit for you, try it once with an open mind. You might be surprised! If it turns out that card still isn’t a good fit for you and your child, take that card out of the pack.
How much quality time should a parent spend with their child every day?
At the time I’m writing this, research hasn’t yet shown whether there’s a “sweet spot” for the right amount of quality time with kids.
So rather than aiming for a certain amount of time, you might ask yourself: Do I feel connected to my child today? If the answer is no, connect for a few minutes. On the flip side, if you notice your child is acting moody, not listening to you, or acting out, a quick dose of quality connection time can usually help turn that bad mood around.
“Children don’t say, ‘I had a hard day at school today; can I talk to you about it?’ They say, ‘Will you play with me?'” – Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting
I’m so busy already. I can’t afford to spend even MORE time with my child!
I can definitely relate! The goal isn’t to spend more time with your child. Remember that research shows parents today are actually spending more time than ever with our children.
Instead, the goal is to shift a handful of short bursts of time you’re already spending with your child into high-quality connection. Quality matters, not quantity.
What if I’m available for quality time with my child, but they’re busy right then?
If your child is engaged in and focused on another activity, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to interrupt them. Some of my kids hate being interrupted, which I completely understand because I hate being interrupted myself!
In my family, I consider it a win when my kids are actively absorbed in something that’s keeping them busy, and I leave them to it. And so if I stumble upon the Family Connection Cards in one of those moments, I “hide” the deck on the dining room table. That way as I’m getting our next meal ready, I’ll find it and remember to spend a couple minutes connecting with them before or during that meal.
What are the benefits of spending time with your child?
Research shows that spending quality time with kids has several benefits. Here are just a few:
- A happy, connected family. Regular high-quality interactions between parent and child increase your child’s wellbeing and strengthen your emotional bond.
- Fewer behavior issues. Research suggests that the quality time you spend with your child can be an antidote to impulsiveness, aggression, and uncontrolled emotion in your child. Also, research shows that when parents spend quality time with their teenagers, their teens are less likely to skip school or break the law.
- Better academic outcomes. When you spend quality time with your child while they’re young, that tends to result in your child experiencing better academic results and healthier relationships as adults.
- Less stress. When a parent and child play together, that regulates the body’s stress response. Also, studies have shown that leisure time helps you cope with stress and protects you from the negative health impacts of stress, so quality time together can help both you and your child deal with stress.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
What’s your favorite way to spend quality time with kids? Share in a comment below!