One morning when our oldest, Joey, was around 4 years old, I was walking out the door for a meeting or a couple hours’ work at a coffee shop, leaving him and his then two younger siblings with a mother’s helper. I heard a bang as the screen swung open behind me and heard a loud sniffling. I turned back to see my normally stoic firstborn crying in the doorway: “Mommy, I just want to beeeee with you.”
He loved his babysitter, and it was only a couple hours a week that I was away from them at all, but he was sensitive to the fact that I was not giving him much quality time at that point.
And I couldn’t, to be honest. I was newly pregnant with baby number four, still working full time-ish, and we had just begun hustling in earnest to save for a down payment for our first house. If we did spend much one on one time with each kid during that season, it was probably a quick bedtime story, a diaper change, or a snuggle before lights out. And that was fine, because it was appropriate for the season we were in!
That being said, even with – perhaps especially with – a larger than average family, it is important to me that each of our kids feel individually known and loved by us. To that end, we’ve started to block out intentional, specific chunks of time each week to spend a few minutes one on one with our older kids, and we’re already starting to see returns on the investment in alone time. Our kids call it “mommy time” and “daddy time,” and I call it taking them on dates, at least in my head.
This morning, for example, I took Joey with me to run an errand and on the way back we stopped at Starbucks to go inside rather than hitting the drive through (big thrill for him) and I got him a $3 breakfast sandwich. He felt like the king of the world retrieving his very own order from the bar, and for about $6 we made a sweet little memory together.
I joke with Dave that we’ve been parenting on defense only for about the past five years, but now that our oldest is approaching eight, we’re starting to feel like we have a little bit – like maybe a couple inches – of breathing room, and so we’ve been trying to do things a little more proactively. (N.B: our youngest is only 6 months, but she’s bottle fed and that has made a world of difference for me in terms of returning to stability postpartum. Usually by 6 months out I’m still feeling pretty touched and tapped out, but with Zelie being a fabulous sleeper and anybody with two thumbs being able to serve her a meal, the return to “the new normal” has been a little more swift).
Growing up in a family of nine, it sometimes felt like there was always another person around. Because, um, there was always another person around.
But! My parents were really great about usually grabbing a kid or two to run an errand, make a grocery trip, or (and this was the holy grail) hit up McDonald’s early on a Saturday morning for hashbrowns with Dad. I remember sneaking downstairs at 7 am and seeing him slipping out the door and running to catch up. I think the unofficial rule was if you were up, you could come. Sometimes it would be just you and dad, and that was always a huge (cheap) thrill.
Several of my kids have, unfortunately, inherited the early riser gene and have begun to beg to accompany me on a morning walk before Dave leaves for the office. Some days I know that I desperately need the alone time to prepare for the day ahead, but other days I’m able to green light them for a little mommy time. It is always so bittersweet to see how happy it makes them, because I know they’re longing for more time with me and also that sometime in the not-so-distant future they’re going to stop asking. So I try to say yes.
My hope is that with every stop at Target and run through the car wash, we’re laying down another layer in the foundation of our relationship. I don’t want to be my kids’ best friend; but I do want to be the biggest influence in their lives. I want them to come to me with big things someday, having become accustomed to running to me with small things.
And so I’ll feign – or is it cultivate? – interest in Pokemon cards and Lego Star Wars and imaginary cat tea parties with the hope that many little yeses during the adoring little years will add up to greater harmony in the adolescent years. I figure if I’m letting them hang out with me now when I’m the coolest person in the universe to them, perhaps they’ll return the favor when the tables are turned in the next five years or so.
Some other easy (and cheap!) date ideas:
Grocery story buddy: helps grab each item off the shelf, holds open produce bags, selects bananas, pays cashier, etc. Hard and fast rule with this one is you get to ask for one “special” item, like a box of granola bars or a Gatorade or a piece of weird fruit, and that’s it. Habitual begging will get you sidelined from grocery-buddy duty.
Starbucks date. We have one walking distance from our house, and the bigger kids love to walk the ½ mile there and back with me.
Hardware shop run with daddy. He’s so fun that he even lets them build the craft if they’re there at the right time on a Saturday morning.
Adoration. I like to stop by our parish’s perpetual adoration chapel for even a five minute visit, depending on how many kids I have with me. If I only have one and it’s an older (read: quieter) child, we’ll stay a little longer, maybe as long as 15 minutes. The more often I do this, the better the kids respond to it.
Ice cream run. Self-explanatory. My kids had their first Dairy Queen dipped cones last week when we hit a record high of 105 degrees, and they were on cloud nine.
PetSmart. My kids loooove to look at animals I will never buy them, and it’s cheaper than the zoo. Sometimes we might pick up a small cat treat for the single pet we do own.
A neighborhood walk where we distribute “kindness rocks”. We found one on a stroll one day and the kids were instantly enamored. It’s just a smooth, flat rock that is either painted or colored with crayons with a kind word or message. My kids like to draw emojis or write Scripture verses on their rocks and then leave them at the base of mailboxes throughout the neighborhood, which is very 2018 of them.
Letting one kid stay up late for a special date night with mommy. I usually do this if Dave has a late night at work or an event that keeps him out. I’ll pull a kid after bedtime (never before. #lessonlearned) and we’ll creep downstairs for hot chocolate or a nail-painting session while everyone else is (allegedly) sleeping.
Some other suggestions I’ve come across and haven’t tried yet include running/swimming/playing tennis with an older kid (I think this will become especially valuable with my boys as they age and are no longer interested in dating their mother at a coffee shop); writing a “conversation journal” back and forth – some friends with daughters have started to do this and are seeing great fruit in their relationships with their tween and preteen daughters; going to Daily Mass alone with just one kid; grabbing someone at lunchtime for a fast food run for a surprise break from the school day, or even a whole weekend or night away with one kid for a special family tradition once they turn a certain age.
What are some things you do with your kids to foster one on one time? Did your parents do this with you? Do you have logistical suggestions for how to make it work with a bigger family? I’d love to hear.