During the summer, I can't wait for the kids to get back to school. Days of temper tantrums, swimming lessons and endless trips to Target seem to last forever. But when the kids are in school, it seems like the only time we spend together is during the morning rush to get out of the house or the chaotic dinner/bath/bedtime hour at night. Here are 5 ways to maximize the time you have with your kids, whether it's during the school year or not.
1. Remember, it's about quality, not quantity
A 15-minute bedtime story in which you are focused only on your child is eons better than taking in a two-hour movie together. Why? Research shows it's not so much the quantity of time you spend with your kids but the quality of it that matters most. So if you don't have a lot of time with them, don't fret. It’s not the amount of time you spend with your kids that solidifies the connection, it's how you spend that time. Not sure where to begin? Spend a few minutes a day alone with each of your kids (that means no cellphones!), focused on them, whether it's giving them a bath or lying in bed with them to chat for a few minutes before they go to sleep.
2. Pajama walks
I learned this one from a good friend and have tried to do it on a nightly basis for about a year. Once the hustle and bustle of the evening rush is over (dinner served, homework done, baths taken), I get my kids into their pajamas, help them brush their teeth and get on their flip flops or sneakers. Then, as the sun is going down, we take a slow walk around the block. Somehow whatever ill will has been generated that day melts away in those moments, and we are able to just enjoy each others' company without the noise of the television, the clanging of the washing machine or even the hum of the dishwasher. Not only does the fresh air help them feel sleepier and ready for bed, it's a nightly ritual we all look forward to.
3. Do household chores with them
As tedious as it might be to make a salad with your 5-year-old, it's worth every bit of effort, and it's better than making a salad while she plays on the iPad in the next room. My kids always eat more of a food that they have helped make, so it's a win-win. Not only are you spending special time with them, but you are teaching them lifelong healthy habits. This goes for fixing anything around the house too. Have your kids hold the flashlight for you and talk them through the job, whether it's replacing a light bulb, hanging a picture or fixing a leaky faucet.
4. Ask the right questions
Sometimes all I want to do on the way home from school with all the kids in the car is zone out or focus on what I have to do next — what to take out of the freezer for dinner or what errands I have to run that evening. But when you're not totally fried, try to use the ride home to chat with your kids about their day. Instead of asking, "How was your day?" — which 99 percent of the time elicits a terse "Good" — try starting with something along the lines of "Tell me something good (or bad) that happened to you today." Or "Tell me something that made you laugh today." By the time you get home, they'll feel better. Everyone needs to talk about their day to decompress, and the routine will become a daily treasured ritual.
5. Give hugs and kisses freely
Kids — even older ones — need touch. In her book, "I Love You Rituals," Becky Bailey, who has a Ph.D. in early childhood education and developmental psychology, confirms the importance of loving touch for kids. "Brain research confirms the critical role of touch in our mental and emotional health. When we touch one another, a hormone is released called the nerve growth factor. This hormone is essential to neural function and learning," she writes. And then a few sentences later, "If we want smart, happy children, we must consciously touch them. It is time to relearn appropriate, caring touch and move past our fear of inappropriate touch. We must embrace touch for its value and function in development and learning." If touch doesn't come easily for you, her love rituals are a perfect place to start. One example? Kissing your child's body parts goodnight each night — their elbow, their foot, even their eyebrows.
Wherever you start, whatever you do, even if it's just one moment of full attention on your kids, it's better than you did yesterday and it's enough today. Don't beat yourself up, and don't get discouraged. Parenting can be a long, bumpy road, but it doesn't have to be a lonely one. We are in this mess together!