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By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
The term “quality time” has been used casually for decades, usually to indicate that while the time spent may be short or scarce, quantity is made up for in quality. There is of some truth to this — romantic relationships for instance, benefit from time for conversations alone and date nights. On the other hand, much of the fabric of a relationship is built up from exposure over time and small, daily interactions such as chatting while making dinner, commuting together, and quick texts about logistics. A mistake parents sometimes make is trying to rush through their necessary tasks, shooing away the children and being short with them, in order to later have uninterrupted play time with them. But this can lead to stress or hurt feelings, which can negatively affect the intended play time.
In my view, “quality time” is any time without too much distraction from a partner or child — not focusing on our cell phone or computer, turning away only for a second to absentmindedly answer a question, or shushing our child or mate because we’re trying to chop carrots (and yes, we all do some of these things some of the time!)
In general, the younger the children, the more undistracted time with a parent — doing anything — is special to them and builds the relationship. For example, although sometimes we’re in a hurry and need to just run to the store efficiently, leaving our children with another person if available, many times we can bring our children with us (or one of them— a strategy of divide and conquer can give individual children much appreciated time without siblings.) Going together might afford a quiet, calm time in the car, chatting or listening to music. It may give our child a chance to get comfortable with public transportation, as well as to notice things out the window together. It may provide a walk or bike ride in the fresh air, getting some exercise.
The store itself is full of opportunities for questions asked and answered, little lessons about want versus need, small negotiations, and learning about quantity and money. Similarly, at home, chores are of course more efficient without a young child’s “help,” but taking a little longer can be worth it for time together and the learning and pride the child feels in helping.
For young children, almost any activity can be fun if approached in a relaxed and playful way. Pre-schoolers can be kept busy with a task that isn’t actually necessary, but keeps them engaged and in your sight— such as finding all the red things in the basket while you’re folding the laundry, or spooning a pre-measured amount of an ingredient into a recipe. Older children sometimes enjoy racing against a timer, or being in charge of finding certain items and carrying their own basket at the grocery store. Of course, be attuned to your child’s limits. Just as you probably would get bored and frustrated playing kindergarten games for three hours, your kindergartner would justifiably get cranky if having to shop in a department store for three hours.
There are a few additional perks to doing mundane tasks together. First, people often talk more easily when engaged in an activity, which can be useful if you have an older child who answers, “Nothing,” when you ask what happened at school today. Second, allowing children to be involved in chores and errands when little paves the way for them to naturally assume some chores when they’re older. Finally, bonding through these normal daily interactions will help during the more special, child-centered activities such as a trip to the zoo, museum or beach, so that it can be enjoyed as just one more interaction among many, without unrealistic pressure or expectations.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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