Friday, February 24, 2012

Preschool (and toddler) Parenting Trick #2: Special Time

Not a photo of Special Time (I don't think any exist), but one of my all-time favorite photos of Bean and me playing together.

Ah.  Special Time.  I think this was probably the biggest game-changer for us in Bean's 4th year, but we have been doing some variation on it for about 2.5 years!

Essentially it is simply 10-15 minutes doing whatever your kid wants.  You are not teaching, you are not molding, you don't answer your phone, you completely forget about the dishes and the mess and the laundry.  You just play.  For 15 minutes.  You don't take it away as punishment.  You don't give it as a reward.  It is your right and your child(ren)'s right to have this little bit of time on a regular basis. 

I first heard about this concept from Harvey Karp's Happiest Toddler on the Block.  Let me say here that I liked Karp's attitude and descriptions of various ages and stages well enough that I now own this book, but the part that most consider the centerpiece of it - "Toddlerese" - was a complete failure and source of meltdowns with Bean.  The basic premise of that is that you diffuse tantrums by acknowledging what the child is saying/requesting/feeling before you say anything else.  You do this by repeating what they're asking for in short, simple sentences.  Once they're calm (and, thus, can listen you), you might tell them you can't fulfill their request.

This pissed Bean off.  For him, it was like teasing - "yes, I understand exactly what you want and I'm going to make it really clear that I understand perfectly, and then I'm going to tell you that you still can't have it!"So Toddlerese was a fail.  That's not to say I won't try it with A-Train or that it can never be a success, or that the concept of acknowledging your child's feelings before doing anything else isn't valuable (see my next post!).

But I digress.  Back to Special Time!

I started every day with Special Time when Bean was about 18 months old and did so until I was on bedrest with A-Train about a year later.  It was a nice way to start the day.  At 18 months, was obviously deciding what we were doing.  We would color with crayons, or get out some clay or paint.   I would get out bowls of water to play in, sometimes adding food coloring

When A-Train joined the family, Special Time stopped happening.  I tried to do it every now and then when the stars aligned and Bean was awake, A-Train was asleep, and I didn't feel overwhelmed with laundry or dishes....but it pretty much stopped.

I was still, of course, giving Bean tons of attention.  I was setting up activities between feedings and loads of laundry, I was reading with him while I nursed A-Train, I was listening to his stories while I did dishes, I was oohing and ahhing appropriately over his impressive airplanes.  I was scooping him up and snuggling him - or even nursing him - whenever he was upset or injured.  Just no dedicated "Special Time." 

The Game Change
When Bean was in the throes of three-years-old, I talked to many people - both professionals and other parents - about parenting and the struggles I was having with Bean.  Variations on Special Time kept coming up, and I though "nah.  Won't help.  I'm already giving him so. much. attention."  I was also struggling with my own stuff (postpartum depression?  nursing difficulties?  having two kids?  New stuff coming up about Mom?  All of the above?).  I was at a loss.  I was wishing my mother was here to tell me how she handled my own intensity, and that just deepened all the emotions.  I would really describe my feelings from about Bean's third birthday until he was 3-and-a-half as desperate.  I have joked that maybe all I needed was a vacation.  But I also finally put Special Time back into our routine, and it was a huge game changer.

Bean would get Special Time with each parent every evening after dinner.  He'd get 15 minutes with each of us, he got to say who went first and what everyone was doing. His brother was completely removed from the room by the other parent.  There was an immediate change in Bean's willingness to cooperate with us.  And he lit up when we did Special Time.  He looked forward to it, he often had some big plan for how we would spend it, and the laughter - hallelujah! - our house was filled with his laughter again.  After a month or two, he gave it up!  He just said, "no thanks."  I was stunned, but it also felt good because he was obviously getting his need for The Beast and me met.

Now, we occasionally do Special Time by request.  Or if there just seems to be a lot of yelling, arguing, tension, and lack of cooperation, I'll start suggesting it again.  I have sort of incorporated it into days when I'm feeling agitated - I will set the timer for 15 minutes and just be with the kids (not one-on-one, but it's something!), and then I will go complete a task, and then I'll do 15 more minutes with them, etc.  It seems that if I can completely give in to their need for attention for just 15 minutes at a time, we can shift the dynamic of the day and I can get things like dishes done without people screaming at me.  It even helps A-Train because Bean is more willing to entertain him and has more patience for his meddling toddler ways!

So.  Special Time.  More than just paying attention to them!  I'm glad I returned to it, as skeptical as I was!

P.S. We have a kitchen timer that I only use for Special Time and to designate 15 minutes of play during the day.  We start Special Time by shouting "On your mark.....get set!  SPECIAL TIME!"  And Bean gets to press the button to start the timer.
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