My son likes to dawdle. It seems to me that he most likes to dawdle when I most need him to rush. "Can you get your stuff ready for school?"
"In a minute," he says.
"Now please, we're running late", I say. Actually, it's me who's running late, but who has time to split hairs.
Ten minutes and even later I've packed his bag and carried it to the car while he puts his shoes on and skips out to the car in his own time…
Why is it that we always seem to be rushing these days? How come, with all these so-called time saving devices we have at our disposal, we seem to have less time than ever?
We have fast food outlets, pre-prepared meals and microwave ovens that cook in minutes, emails, mobile phones and SMS to keep in touch on the hop, fast boil kettles for a quick cuppa, freeways to get there sooner, express checkout isles at the supermarket so we get home quicker. With 'telecommuting' at our disposal, apparently we don't even have to go in to the office anymore. And yet, there never seems to be enough moments - let alone minutes or hours - to stop and smell the roses.
Time's an interesting thing. We take it for granted and let it run our lives, but it's a reasonably new concept. Oh sure, there was a sundial in the village square of our ancestors, or maybe a water clock or clock tower, but time for the masses with accurate wall clocks and watches is something that’s only been about for a relatively short time, at best about 150 years.
Before watches and clocks, people's lives were ruled by movement of the sun (it was daytime or night-time) and by the seasons (it's time to plant, or time to harvest). Things still had to be done, and often by a certain 'time', but hey, 'why do today what you can put off until tomorrow' was a maxim most people could easily aspire to. Even though everything people did back then took a lot longer to get done, oddly enough there was still time to sit and relax!
This fast paced world we live in stretches parents to the limit. And often, because of the time and other commitment pressures that are on us, we do what we can to compensate.
We drive the kids to school rather than walking or riding with them; we send them to organised sporting activities instead of playing kick to kick outside or in the park; we have them tutored instead of teaching them ourselves; we buy them the latest DVDs and hi-tech gaming machines to fill in the gaps.
Out of the process, we spend even less time with them. And so the cycle goes.
This 'compensatory parenting' style, where we make up for our time away from our kids by buying them more goods and services doesn't appear to work. It's possibly driven by guilt about our unavailability.
Many parents/carers recognise the inherent problems with this strategy and are choosing to make changes to their lifestyles - in particular their buying habits and other financial commitments - in order to limit their work obligations and have more time to spend with their children and other family members. These 'downshifting' family units are finding new values and are enjoying life more as a result.
Research with children show that compensatory parenting doesn't meet their needs either. Research by Barbara Pollock and Jane Clarke of The Australia Institute found that kids enjoyed the trappings of a financially secure lifestyle - they liked the services and gadgets and gizmos their parents/carers could afford to buy. But what they most wanted is time to just hang out with an unstressed parent/carer, a finding that applied to older as well as younger children. And it wasn’t just one parent or the other they wanted to hang out with.
In families following a more traditional approach to the division of labour - where one met financial needs and the other raised the kids, it was the absent parent - typically the father one would assume - that the children wanted to have more time with. So what about if mum stays home while dad goes off to work? Well no, that doesn’t make up the shortfall.
What the research showed is that kids seem to want time with which ever parent is missing the most. My private practice clients lend some support to the research. As children, many of them also missed an absent parent, and are often left with a regretful legacy of that experience, as the relationship remains distant. It seems that for children, absence does make the heart grow fonder, or at least leaves it longing.
Because it’s dads who tend to be the most likely to be absent from their children’s lives, and because my role at Kidslife is to consider parenting from the male perspective, I’m going to focus on dads/male carers or other significant male role models from here on in. However, the strategies I outline below can be equally effective for mums/female carers to think about in relation to their level of involvement.
Like mums, dads have a lot to bring to their children's development. Research indicates that the quality of a father’s relationship with their child can produce dividends in cognitive development and in self-esteem and confidence. Most importantly, involvement from fathers in parenting children can have a positive impact on marital relationships, and conflict within the family has by far the greater influence over children’s well-being and development.
Like fine wine and good food, great parenting takes time. It can't be hurried along or rushed into. It needs patience and planning, and plenty of time for reflection and evaluation to be an effective parent.
The demands of work place pressure on the time we spend with our children and on how we interact with them when we do. If you believe your current lifestyle is impacting negatively on your relationship with your kids, here’s some tips that will help you begin the process of making things better.
Let's start by working out just how much time you spend with your children – that is, in their actual presence. This is a very important first step, because we can over or underestimate the time we spend with our kids very easily. You need an accurate picture of what’s going on in order to work out what can and can’t change.
You could use a chart with the days of the weeks and your children’s names to track it, or you might like to use your diary. What's important is to keep the record as accurately as you can – don’t leave out short periods or extend the times. For now, include just the time you actually spend in your children’s presence. Do this for a week or two, and think about the result.
Does it surprise you? Can you see a pattern, perhaps times when you’re with them more or away more? Is there room for improvement?
As well as quantity, we need to think about the quality of the time spent with children - 24/7 with a distant, distracted father/carer is not going to make any difference to the kids. Likewise, being constantly under their feet isn’t going to be much fun for them either. This is the part that requires balance.
Sometimes, we need to be right in the thick of it with our kids – down on the floor playing, snuggled on the couch watching TV, helping out with homework or playing sport together.
These are times when our children need our physical and psychological attention. It is relatively easy to schedule in time for this – to create opportunities for this to happen – if we’re genuine about trying to be involved. You could even involve the kids in deciding how and when you're going to get together with them.
The other side of this coin is when we are freed up physically, but your kids need you to be available psychologically. I think psychological availability suffers the most from our busy lifestyles. We’re distracted by a problem at work when our daughter wants to tell us about this morning’s episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. We’re stressed and tired after spending the day meeting the needs of our customers – there’s no energy or patience left for the little guy’s needs and demands. We’re focused on getting to the meeting on time or too busy to take a call from our kids while we’re at work.
Making ourselves psychologically available to our kids requires a reassessment of our priorities, and one where our kids end up somewhere near the top of the list.
Make some time to list your Top Ten priorities in life, then allocate how much time you devote to each and rewrite the list in order of their apparent priority. Then re-write the list again in order according to how you’d like to prioritise things.
Now you can see what needs to change - what needs to increase, what can decrease, and what can stay the same. How you can go about making the actual changes is beyond the scope of this article. Every family is different, but I'd encourage you to talk about these lists with your partner and family - what one sees as a priority may not be for others, and vice versa. The process requires communication, negotiation and compromise.
The final stage of the process is the most difficult, and thus is the part where most people give up on change. Enacting change in your life brings many challenges.
I'm not going to pretend that becoming an 'unhurried parent' is a simple process— it's not.
What I have suggested is a broad brush approach to a fine grained problem. I can already hear the cries across cyberspace of "I can't …" or "I have to…". My response to these types of questions is always with a question - Who says "you can't?" Why do "you have to?"
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy in the messages we send ourselves about what is possible in our lives and what is not.
Look for possibilities rather than impossibilities. It is worth it. My experience suggests that once parents/carers reassess their priorities, their psychological availability increases dramatically and the benefits to children and parents/carers alike can be enormous. The other effect of re-evaluating our priorities is that we begin to get more involved with the important stuff of life – our relationships, our communities and our families. And we start to feel much more in control of our time…and our lives.
Give it a try, what have you got to lose?
Article written by Andrew Hacker, (BA; Grad Dip. Applied Psych.; (CMACA)).