Banking Quality Time

"Quality time" is a concept that many of us have tried to come to terms with over the last several years. Do we spend enough time with our children? How do we find the time at all if we work outside the home? How do we focus it if we're at home with multiple demands of multiple children? Most of all, is the time that we find to spend good enough? Is it really quality time?

I remember being at a family weekend where parents were asked to pair up with children for an hour of "special" time. Our task was to be fully available to that child, to do exactly what they wanted us to do. What an opportunity! What a chance for that rare and highly-prized quality time!

In the evening there was a question period. One woman asked plaintively, "What if you wasted your special time? My daughter didn't want to do anything special. So we spent the whole hour wandering around, looking at bushes and things. She didn't make us of my attention, and it didn't feel special to me. What use was that?"

The answer that was given has stuck firmly in my mind ever since. "Nothing special has to happen. Your daughter had your attention. She knew that she had it; she knew its value. If she didn't have any particular use to make of it right then (i.e., talk about a trouble, share a confidence, master a skill), that's fine. Think of it as banking. That hour of attention has been banked. She's richer by that much resource. It's in her account now and will be available whenever she needs it."

I think this concept of banking can be very helpful in taking the mystique out of quality time. We don't have to go to some event and be magically uplifted together. We don't have to have the parent-child conversation of a lifetime. We don't have to engineer the perfect cozy loving feeling complete with soft chair, warming fire, wonderful book and child in arms (or whatever). We don't have to have the most exciting evening of our lives. Any of these are fine if they happen, but they're all a little hard to set up in advance--and they aren't necessary for quality time. Pinning our hopes on them does little more than feed parental inadequacy and guilt, which actually flourishes just fine without additional help.

The key to quality time is our attention. And we can pay good attention to our children wherever we are, and whatever they are doing. It doesn't have to feel special to us. We can look through fashion magazines, arrange little Fisher Price people, do puzzles, go shopping, take a walk, joke around, paint a room, look at bushes, draw pictures, have water fights, listen to their complaints. It doesn't matter what we do together. It just matters that they make the choice and have our attention.

Of course, this is more easily said than done. My impulse to try to get some work done while pretending to pay attention is almost overwhelming at times, and the activity of their choice is not always the one I would choose. But when we can actually be available to them, and pay good attention, whether for ten minutes or an hour, they will notice. It's a precious resource and they will use it--cashing in right away or enriching their account in the bank.