Once a week, for precisely one hour, I chase my 15-month-old through a bookstore. He runs, giggling as he grabs books off the shelves and throws them on the floor, just to watch me pick them up to sympathetic smiles from fellow parents and occasional scowls from passing grumps. No, I’m not a single dad. And, no, I don’t struggle to handle my kid. We just go on daily one-hour adventures and, for whatever reason, my son digs terrorizing Barnes & Noble. We’d go more often, but it seems indecent to savage the non-fiction section more than once a week.
On non-book throwing days, we spend our hour falling over at the playground, throwing things out of a shopping cart, or exploring the wilds of our cul-de-sac, my son’s bulky toddler shoes slapping the pavement as he scrambles up the neighbors’ porches. Our daily adventures all begin promptly at 6:00pm, after I finished work, when wife needs an hour to herself and I need an hour with my son. It just so happens that tends to be when my son needs to get out some energy by going chaotic good all over local establishments. It works out for everyone. Shoppers get a spectacle. I get some time out of the house. My son gets to do what he feels compelled to do.
Family science suggests I’m onto something. Researchers have found that children with involved fathers, who take time out of their day to play meaningful roles in their lives, are less likely to break the law, hold onto gender stereotypes, or have risky sex, and more likely to do well in school and keep their jobs. Men who help out around the house, watch the kids and take on non-traditional gender roles tend to have happier marriages. And guys who consistently see their kids are simply happier people. It appears to be a scientific trifecta—my one-hour daily adventure is simultaneously helping my son, my marriage, and my own self-image. That’s kind of why I do it, but I also do it because love—especially when your kids are involved—is sometimes hard to separate from routine.
The key is consistency. No matter how busy things get, my wife deserves an hour to herself and I deserve an hour with my son. As we grow our family, I imagine that hour may get pared down so that I can spend one-on-one time with each child with some regularity (studies suggest that’s especially important with middle children, who often feel like they don’t get enough attention). But I hope to never make spending time with my kid a “when I get a chance” thing. It’s part of my calendar, a piece of my daily ritual. Which means it actually happens.
That hour—when my son and I drive out to Target to play with unopened toys until we break one and have to buy it; when we check into our dinky local mall and lose a quarter to a dilapidated kiddy ride; when we visit a hardware store and quickly come to the realization that hardware stores are not baby proof —is sacred. It’s an hour for us to get to know each other outside the context of diaper changes, bedtime stories and, frankly, mom.
It’s also exactly the right amount of time. I can help get him ready for bed and do more responsible dad stuff back at home, but in our time away from the house we remain iron focused on playing, and on each other. My son is too young to have a clear sense of time, but I’m not and I’ve timed out how long it’s possible to parent in a carefree, fun-first way. That’s about an hour. After that, there’s stuff that needs taking care of and the tone of the proceedings shifts–not in a bad way, just in a less adventurous way.
I know my son won’t remember these adventures (and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t fully process them). But our tradition is, nonetheless, ours. It is helping to strengthen our relationship early on and training me to prioritize one-on-one time that, as my son grows older, will be an even more important part of reaffirming our connection. Years from now, that hour will become less about knocking books off shelves and more about baseball practices. But the hour will remain inviolable right up until I can’t protect it any longer. It is the time I set aside, before my son understood time.