I dreaded bedtime with my seven- and five-year-old daughters. Specifically, nagging to get them in the bath. Followed by breaking up naked dance parties and begging them to put on their pajamas. Then, haggling over which books to read and how many. More negotiating over who got a turn to sit on my lap and how long our cuddle sessions would be. And finally, many (many!) last calls for cups of water, missing stuffies and hugs till they fell asleep like innocent little angels.
I didn’t understand why getting them to listen to me was so hard. Worse, that struggle was turning me into a scolding mom version of myself I wasn’t proud of. So when I heard about a parenting technique that promised to completely strengthen and transform my relationship with my kids in just 15 minutes a day, I was intrigued.
I first heard about this tantalizing idea from Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach in Toronto. She recommends scheduled short bursts of “special time” for all families with kids from toddler age to teens, because it deepens our connection with our kids, helps us empathize with them and can even improve our kids’ behaviour, which (I’m not gonna lie) was my biggest motivator.
“Our children really need to feel that we see them, that we understand them, and that they matter,” says Rosensweet. “When they feel connected to us they want to be more cooperative. Our strong relationship with them is ultimately the most powerful way we can influence them.”
What’s so special about “special time”?
Coined by parenting educator Patty Wipfler, and further popularized by Rosensweet’s peaceful parenting mentor, psychologist Laura Markham, “special time” is basically one-on-one time with your kid that’s unstructured (think imaginative play or roughhousing) and that’s entirely focused on them. So even if you’re home all day with your kids (as many of us have been during the pandemic), this is not the same. With “special time” you give up control as the parent and lose yourself in their world of play, whether it’s having a tea party with dolls, building a Lego mansion or wrestling on the bed. The activities should be creative, active and open-ended—for example, reading to them or playing board games don’t give the same result. The amount of time can be anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, but Rosensweet says it’s best to aim for 10 to 20 minutes per day, per child. If you have two parents and two kids you can swap at the 15-minute mark and go another round, which would take 30 minutes in all. Or just swap kids every other day to keep it shorter. With three kids (or more), even 15 minutes can be overwhelming, so you might have to shorten it to 10 minutes so everyone gets a turn. If you’re solo parenting, you might have to send one of the kids to their room with an iPad—a last resort—while you’re having “special time” with their sibling. (Distracting a child with screen time isn’t generally a great idea, says Rosensweet, but getting interrupted defeats the purpose so you win some, you lose some.)
“A lot of people think of ‘special time’ as spending the whole day with their child, and taking them places and spending money, but that’s not it at all,” says Rosensweet. “It’s immersing yourself in your child’s world, in their room, or in the playroom or whatever and saying, ‘I’m all yours. What do you want to play?’”
How does “special time” work?
Our new ritual goes something like this: Before my husband and I start making dinner, we set a 15-minute timer on our phones and play with our daughters, Alice and Edith, one-on-one. He’ll take the seven-year-old in one room, I’ll take the five-year-old in another and we’ll alternate the next day. Scheduling “Alice and Edie time” might sound like overkill but when we’re juggling jobs, housework, childcare and a million distractions, sometimes it’s the only way we manage to squeeze in any time just to be fun with our kids. Apart from the time limit, the only rule for this routine is that we’re doing something imaginative or physical; there are no screens, and the kids call the shots. My little one likes to show me how to build dollhouses out of shoeboxes and knick knacks, or play “baby time”—where I fill up her water bottle and feed it to her like she’s an infant while she coos and gurgles in my lap. My eldest likes to balance on my feet like an airplane or ride me like a horse.
“Special time” tips and ideas
Once you’re willing to commit to “special time,” start by adding it to your to-do list every day. It can be any time of day that works for your family, but tell your kid when it’s going to be, especially if it’s not consistent. Setting a timer also helps to manage expectations, but be prepared for big feelings when it’s over, says Rosensweet. You can treat them like scheduled meltdowns, she says—think of it as an opportunity for them to let out their big feelings that have been building up. Respond with empathy, like, “I know! I love ‘special time’ too. It’s so hard when it’s over. We’ll do it again tomorrow.”
You might wonder how you’ll think of new things to do every day but here’s the best part: it’s better if you leave it up to your kids to come up with ideas. My younger child, Edie, is a natural at inventing magical worlds or random competitions, like a pretend sleeping contest where the silliest snorer wins. (Hot tip: the kid should always win.) But Alice, my firstborn, likes structure. Rosensweet doesn’t recommend activities in which the kid is coming into the adult’s world, such as baking cookies, but Alice really loves to cook, so sometimes I’ll let her put me to work in the kitchen, inventing creative desserts like pretzel chips topped with vanilla ice cream and PB&J, which we serve to Edie and her dad when “special time” is over.
Roughhousing is also a supercharged way to bond over physical play and laughter, says Rosensweet. As long as it’s not tickling, she warns. Many parenting experts believe tickling can be harmful because it triggers an involuntary response, and even if your kid is laughing, they still feel powerless. (My youngest still asks to be tickled, so I’m on the fence about that one.) Instead, Rosensweet recommends “tickling them one inch away from their body and saying something like ‘I’m tickling you, I’m tickling you,” and they still will laugh like crazy, because it’s funny.” Laughter is a great tool for connecting because when we laugh with somebody, our bodies make the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in bonding, she explains. It’s also a great way to offload tension and stress.
Roughhousing was never my thing but now I start pillow fights or chase my daughters around the house for hugs and kisses. We’ve also adopted one of Rosensweet’s go-to games, when you make your kid into a “pizza” — while they’re lying down, rolling out the “dough” like their body is a giant rolling pin, spreading the “sauce” out with a big rubdown, sprinkling handfuls of “toppings” on them, “baking” them in the oven (under pillows), “slicing” them with karate chops and then nibbling them all over.
Does “special time” live up to its promise?
My family has been doing “special time” four or five days a week for the past couple months now. My goal was to do it every day—it’s only 15 minutes, right?—but it’s challenging to fit it in around any plans, whether it’s a playdate with the neighbours or a visit from family. (Never mind after-school activities that we hope will resume.) When we do pull it off, I always feel like it was worth more than just a few laughs. I’ve never been a so-called “fun mom”—preferring to cuddle with my girls or to watch them play while I’m comfortably seated on the couch or a park bench. But this has pushed me to lighten up, while letting them see another, goofier side of me. I’m also getting to know them more deeply through the eyes of a kid, which is a little trippy but wonderful. My husband—who’s always been better at being the fun dad, damn him—is noticing his relationship with the girls start to shift, too. They love having his undivided attention without the distractions of the phone and work. He’s noticed that they’re happier and that everyday conflicts (a.k.a. meltdowns) are less extreme than they once were.
It’s helped with our sibling rivalry issues, too. My guess is that my girls are more secure in my love for them. My five-year-old doesn’t want to be babied as much during the day since she gets that kind of attention during “special time” and they are both more agreeable about going to bed after a couple books and songs, as opposed to always begging for more. Some days it also seems like they’re listening better all around, which has been further helped by implementing other strategies such as giving choices and making chore charts. I’m also working on being more patient (counting to 10 before responding helps) and nagging less. “When kids feel connected, they want to be more cooperative, but connection can’t be the only tool in the toolbox,” says Rosensweet.
Rosensweet says the intentionality of the quality time is the key. Even if you’re a stay-at-home parent with a toddler and you feel like you’re with your kid 24/7 as it is, “special time,” can still be a treat for them. She likens it to date night with your partner. You may just end up watching TV together with a glass of wine, but naming it and framing it as something “romantic” can help you to connect. “It’s that phrase of ‘I’m all yours for the next 15 minutes’ or ‘we’re going to spend time together.’ Even a small child can understand that.”