In my first year as a professional parent educator, I gained access to some of Seattle’s brightest minds in the field. A relatively new parent myself, I turned to these mentors for every dilemma under the sun. It wasn’t long before I noticed a common refrain: Emotional outbursts? I’d give special time a shot. Clinginess? Special time could help. Sibling rivalry? Have you tried special time? Managing fears? Feeling distant? Aggression? Special time. Special time. Special time.
Special time is defined by Madeleine Winter of Hand in Hand Parenting as “a regular, defined period of time where you focus undivided attention on your child, playing however they want.” Like so many parents, whenever I received this advice, I thought to myself: They act like this is magic, but don’t I do that already? And so, I shirked the prescription. I shirked it for nearly a year, in fact. But when desperation finally led me to take a serious dose of it, I realized that not only was I not doing it already, but it was exactly what I was missing.
Parents think they already do special time with their kids, but they don’t.
“Special time” is easily confused with quality time and playtime. And here’s the thing: It’s pretty useless if you try to do it intuitively. Quality time, playtime, positive coaching: They are all important and all encouraged. They are like the healthy diet of parenting — day in and day out — where special time is the daily multivitamin. Easy, efficient, effective. A bit magical, indeed.
But it doesn’t work when it’s confused with quality time or playtime. We think: Play with my kid without being distracted? No problem! I tried that for months as I struggled to connect with my daughter and calm her intense emotions. But it failed, because I was missing the key ingredients that are unique to special time. I’ve distilled them down to the three most essential. So, if you have just a few minutes to learn what it is and how to use those ingredients, let’s get started. So first off, what is it, exactly?
Special time is an antidote to our distracted culture and tendency to “overparent.”
We parents love our children and we show up for them. But overwork gets in the way. With our bodies and minds in constant productivity overdrive, it can be hard to find the brakes when we sit down with our kids. We may not realize it, but most of us struggle to focus, and then in the blips of time that we do focus, we tend to (lovingly, unknowingly) “overparent”: teaching, guiding, directing, suggesting, quizzing, correcting, entertaining, motivating, etc.
These things are good in moderation, but when they are the default, it leaves little space for our kids to feel seen and heard. This can leave them starved for attention and control, even when we spend time with them regularly. Starved in such a way, their behavior becomes less regulated, more challenging, leading to outbursts, clinginess, rivalry — we’ve all been there.
In special time, less is more. For a short period, we refuse to be distracted and we refuse to overpower. We pour attention on our children and listen, fortifying them until the next session. We feel a renewed sense of connection as we gain understanding of what interests, delights and troubles our child. We gain confidence and peace of mind as special time becomes an oasis. Sounds sophisticated, but it isn’t. This can be achieved with three simple ingredients: a timer, enthusiasm and attention (TEA).
For me, the TEA mnemonic device fits because I think of special time a lot like teatime. For years, I was in the Ted Lasso camp on tea. In the hit show, Jason Sudeikis plays the title role of a folksy American who coaches a British soccer team, and for all that he embraces about the U.K., tea (aka “garbage water”) is not one of them. Says Lasso, “I always figured that tea was just gonna taste like hot brown water. And you know what? I was right. It’s horrible. No, thank you.” So, I was with Lasso, but eventually I realized that when tea has the right ingredients for me, it’s not only delicious, it’s healing. Medicinal almost. Kind of like special time.
Here’s more about those ingredients:
- The timer: Special time without a timer is like basketball without the ball. It simply isn’t special time. Without it, we parents can get distracted by checking our phones for the time. We lose focus. Children lose focus, too, and are less likely to connect. We lose the efficiency that makes it a magical antidote in a busy world.
When I think timer, I also think about timing. A tip regarding young children: You’ll never miss a daily dose of special time if you build it into your everyday routine. Young children love and need routine, so use that to your advantage! After having special time daily for a few days, my daughter was like our personal trainer, reminding us to do 10 minutes each morning right after breakfast. For older children and teens, longer durations and less frequency is recommended. For example, once a month you could give them a small budget and offer to take them wherever they want to go for a few hours.
- Enthusiasm: During special time, we allow kids to do anything they want to do, within reason. Special time puts limits on the activities that parents — ahem — hate to do. Did you wake up today hoping to play Anna and Elsa for the 500th time? To let your kiddo win the 700th game of chase around the kitchen table? To catch your kid jumping on the bed when they aren’t usually allowed to? Yeah, me neither. But our children are choosing these activities to get something they need. Maybe it’s a sense of power in a world where they really have so little, or it’s therapeutic laughter, a healing endorphin surge.
We don’t want to deny these benefits to our children, but we can lose patience and participate halfheartedly, and our children sense it. In special time, we are fully present for a shorter period of time. Suddenly, Anna, Elsa and the circles around the kitchen table seem much more manageable — and much more fun — for everyone. When these more grating play requests come up, we can say, “Sure, let’s do that in our next special time session.” Then, when the time comes, we can authentically pour on the enthusiasm, feeling good about giving our kids something they need without sacrificing our own sanity in the process.
And because we follow the lead of the child, we need only to show up. No planning, no prep time. Just show up, breathe and follow your child’s lead, and you have succeeded. Personally, I can manage to be enthusiastic about that for 10(ish) minutes.
- Attention: The first time I did special time with my daughter — I mean, really did it — I was shocked by the number of distractions that came up:
- I was tempted to start organizing the toys we were playing with.
- I wanted to FaceTime with Grandma so she could see my daughter playing with a toy she had bought for her.
- I noticed the play dough had dried out and was tempted to go on Amazon to order more.
- I was tempted to take photos of my daughter.
- I was tempted to go refill my coffee. ○ I was tempted to suggest activities that I like more.
- I was tempted to quiz her on some related math concepts.
- I was tempted to use the activity to teach her some new vocabulary words.
- I was tempted to take control of the script and entertain her.
- My mind wandered to plans for the afternoon, to the cleaning that needed done, to an issue at work, etc. …
The list goes on, and this wasn’t hours — it was 15 minutes. No wonder, then, that I had sometimes spent more than an hour playing with my daughter only for us both to feel a little more frustrated than connected by the end. This was an epiphany for me. Had I never done special time with her, distraction and micromanagement may have continued to be my predominant parenting style, unbeknownst to me. Since that day, when I do special time with her, I refuse to let my mind wander, instead treating that time as a meditation.
My daughter now wants to do special time each morning. Our improved connection is noticeable to everyone, her tantrums have mellowed out considerably, and I feel confident as a parent, knowing I can get this one valuable thing right each day. It has not fully solved our every last problem — especially those outside the home — but it has given us a healing oasis to return to again and again.
Try as we might, we cannot fully prepare our children for all the things that the world will unload on them. But we can offer an antidote. An oasis. If you seek it, may special time, done right, help to steady and center your parenting practice. Go forth and let the magic happen.
Need more detail to get started or to deepen your special-time practice? These resources make that easy, too.