“Let’s play Scrabble!” my husband calls, rounding up the family for game night. He loves the action — the camaraderie, laughter, even bickering. And interacting family-style is fun. However, while I enjoy a group game as much as the next mom, what I find myself craving even more, as our kids age, is time to bond with each of them separately.
Everyone wants to feel important, but during group activities, when one child is talking your ear off and another is complaining you never listen, it’s impossible to give them equal airtime. And each child relates differently. While your daughter may be Chatty Cathy, expressing her feelings every chance she gets, your son might need a half-hour to open up. Personalities aside, it’s always easier to have a meaningful conversation with one child when you’re not being interrupted by another.
The bonus: While you’re walking the dog with your son or shooting hoops with your daughter, chances are they’ll feel more free to confide in you about the mean math teacher or ask questions about your childhood. If I only had one child, it would be easier to find — and perhaps even overdose on — alone time. Yet, in a house buzzing with three kids and lots of activity, I really need that time to relate one-on-one. So read on for some tips for implementing what I call the divide and conquer.
Pencilling it in
As much as kids may battle it out for your attention when you’re all in the same room, as they get older, they get busier, and alone time with you is probably not high on their priority list. Just try to tear your 12-year-old away from Facebook for a heart-to-heart and you’ll see what I mean.
What works for me is letting my kids know in advance that I want time alone with just them. Then, to make sure I follow through, I try to block off at least one hour for each child each week. I look at it this way: If 13-year-old Seth’s karate class is important enough to make headlines in my iPhone, then so should the seven o’clock walk that he and I take to the corner store on Wednesday evening. A little certainty works wonders: With the date and time set, your child is less likely to start chatting with friends at 6:45 and may even look forward to the hour he’ll have you all to himself.
Of course, there are times when our date gets bumped — whether he’s buried in homework or I can’t postpone a work call. If your alone time has to be delayed, that’s OK, as long as you and your child both know that it will happen that night, even if it’s during a long back-scratch before bed.
Despite your best intentions, quality time can’t always be scheduled. So you have to grab those one-on-one moments when they appear.
It’s no coincidence it was while I was alone with Aaron (now eight), washing his hair in the bath, that he told me his friend was bullying him at school. The trick is to remember that, however long or short it may be, the private time you have with your child is valuable. Use it to ask and answer questions, and really listen. If you’re tuned in, you’ll find these moments happen when you least expect it, while riding through the car wash or loading the dishwasher after dinner.
Believe it or not, errands also provide the perfect opportunity for alone time, a lesson I learned from my father. Before popping out for groceries, he’d shout: “Who’s up for a ride?” and one of us kids would volunteer to keep him company. That’s because we learned pretty quickly that alone time with Dad was a blast. It meant singing along to the radio, laughing at his jokes and ending up with an ice cream cone.
Sweetening the deal
Now I let my kids know that they make errands, such as trips to the grocery store, so much more fun for me. It’s a win-win for both of us. Not only do I end up with a helper who hangs out with me while I get chores done, but that helper gets to pick favourite foods and inevitably ends up with a comic book in the checkout line.
Call it a bribe, but if you don’t make the time your kids spend alone with you fun, they are less likely to jump at the chance. Dragging your daughter along to the dry cleaners means agony for her? Tell her that she controls the radio for the ride or that, after errands are done, you’ll head to the park for a picnic lunch.
My kids know that if I can fit it in, I’ll make a second stop just for them when we’re alone together. When Seth’s running shoes are literally disintegrating on his feet, you can bet he’s a lot more eager to replace them when I suggest we’ll hit Chapters afterward. But all Rachel, 12, has to hear is “shoes” and she’s racing to the car.
Doing something your kids enjoy relaxes them and shows them that you want to be part of their world. With Seth, bonding time is more likely to occur when we’re browsing shelves for fantasy books than while he’s trying on shoes. For Rachel, though, the shopping experience itself — pointing out what we like, finding just the right pair — is something we gals bond over. We’ll end up talking fashion, which leads to talking about girls at school, which leads to talking about crushes, all in no time flat.
Just you and me
As kids grow, they learn that it’s wonderful to develop separate relationships with each parent. And through alone time, they come to appreciate that with each of you, they share more than just Mom’s freckles or Dad’s long arms.
Kids’ interests are different, so home in on them. While Seth and I like to ride the bike path behind our house, Rachel and I would prefer to snuggle beneath a blanket to watch The Bachelorette. My husband, Rob, has as much fun watching hockey with Aaron as he does accompanying Seth to the annual comic book convention or Rachel to a Raptors game.
It’s not that the others aren’t welcome to (and sometimes do) join the fun, but there is real value in nurturing that intimate connection, with its full attention and private jokes, that only two people share. And let’s face it, Rob has about as much interest in The Bachelorette as I have in the hockey game.
There’s something lasting about shared experiences with your child. They turn into memories that deepen your relationship and make it unique. I know I’ll never forget shopping with my mother for my first bra, or waking up early on Sundays to flip pancakes with Dad. These are the photos that I carry in my mind, and they don’t seem to fade with age.
10 ideas for one-on-one fun
• bike riding
• browsing bookstores
• watching TV
• restaurant meals
• riding the subway
• going to the theatre
• walking the dog
• bedtime conversations
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.