Raising kids can often feel like an impossible exercise in time management. Besides, it’s a tricky balance to strike. Invest too little time in your kids, and they grow up with mental health problems. Smother them in too much attention, and face similar consequences. The best course of action is to have fewer, but more meaningful interactions with your kids.
“It’s essential to kids’ healthy development that we give them our focused attention–not every minute of the day, of course, but regularly, preferably every day,” marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney told Fatherly. Ultimately, children have terrible sense of boundaries and will take all 24 hours of the day if you let them. But if you use the following, evidence-based tools you’ll be able to generate more quality—instead of quantity time.
Give Attention in Smaller Doses
“You don’t have to feel like spending quality time requires a significant chunk of the day,” Sharon Somekh, a pediatrician and parenting consultant told Fatherly. Instead of trying to carve out an hour of quality time, consider breaking it up in small doses. Young children will be especially satisfied by shorter periods of engagement as it’s more conducive to their attention spans anyway. Marriage and family therapist Bette Alkazian recommends trying to spend roughly six minutes focused on your kid for every hour. While it will add up to about the same amount of time, everyone will enjoy it more.
Put Your Phone in the Car, Another Room, Or in a River
Whether you have your smartphone on the table or in your pocket, research shows that it will lower the quality of your interactions with your kids. And although the detriment of screen time is debatable, the developmental toll it takes on your kids when they constantly compete with your iPhone for attention cannot be overstated. “The most important thing you can do to have meaningful time with your child is to turn off your devices,” Whitney says.
Make Eye Contact and Physical Contact
Having as much “eyeball to eyeball time” as well as physical attention can make a huge difference when it comes to maximizing the amount of attention parents give their kids in a limited amount of time. Eye contact during infancy can have crucial long-term effects on parent-child bonds, as well as individual resilience and mental health, research shows. Likewise, studies have found that physical contact—from cuddling to roughhousing, and from tickling to just reading together—positively impacts kids all the way down to the genetic and molecular level. It’s really the least you can do.
Separate Children From Their Siblings
As much as it sounds like a police interrogation tactic, trying to solve a dinner-time crime is not the only reason to separate siblings. “No one should have to compete with their siblings for special time and attention,” Alkazian says, noting that it can be difficult to accomplish this on a regular basis. But on special occasions, try setting aside special dates for alone time with each kid, based on his or her interests
Always Be on the Lookout For “Behavioral Easter Eggs”
Even when you haven’t set aside quality time, it’s important to look out for what marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec describes as “behavioral easter eggs”. These include any positive rather than negative behaviors parents want to see their kids repeat, which should serve as cues to check back in with children and validate what they did.
“Identify a target behavior and then set out to look for that behavior being enacted. Think about it like a mini scavenger hunt for yourself,” Krawiec. Whether or not it’s play time—if you see something, say something.