I’ve been teaching about Special Time this week and it’s led me to think more about my journey with it.
These days we do Special Time for about 15 minutes per child every day, and it’s a chunk of time that we all, me included, enjoy. The impact on how my kids feel and therefore their behaviour is crystal clear.
But it hasn’t always been like that.
So if you’ve been dabbling in Special Time, and hearing wonderful stories of it, but have been hitting some hurdles in your family, here are some thoughts that might help.
First up, if you’re new to this playful parenting tool, Special Time is 1:1 time with each child where they get to be in charge and you do whatever they want you to, with delight and enthusiasm.
It’s important to name and announce it so that your kids know up-front that they have ownership of this time and can depend on your uninterrupted attention. Which means not going to check your phone or hanging the laundry until the timer goes off…
Doing regular Special Time helps build strong, close relationships with your kids. I like to think of the time we invest in relationship building as digging the foundations for a house. So much in the whole of your child’s life rests on these early experiences. Just like good foundations for a building, it’s important we spend time and effort on the foundations even if we don’t ‘see’ exactly what the impact is (though I’m pretty sure you will!)
With all this in mind, a few years back, I started doing Special Time with my kids.
They loved it! Of course they did!
There I was, paying them lovely warm attention, all of a sudden not being distracted.
I meanwhile, did NOT love it.
For some of us play does not come easily.
Maybe we weren’t played with much as children, maybe we are overwhelmed in our current lives and have little energy left to play, maybe the play choices our children make annoy or trigger us for some reason or are, quite frankly, extremely boring to us.
Whatever the reason, I found it really hard to commit to regular Special Time with my children. I would do it for a few days, see some positive impact and then life happened and we’d ‘forget’ all about it for weeks. Or I’d manage 5 or 7 or 10 minutes but be totally unable to contemplate the thought of longer stretches of time.
I don’t think my experience here is uncommon. But it can be hard to know how to move forward from it. If you’ve been experiencing hurdles with Special Time, here’s a few ideas that worked well for me.
Talk About It The Hurdles You are Hitting
I did Listening Partnerships on the subject. Lots and lots of Listening Partnerships where I complained about how utterly boring I found the whole Special Time thing, how annoying it was, how I didn’t want to do it. I bemoaned how busy life was, how hard it was to fit Special Time in, how hard it was to give undivided delight on the 97th rerun of ‘I’m a lost puppy, and you rescue me and take me home and give me a bath and food’.
I complained a LOT!
And having the opportunity to offload all these feelings with a non-judgmental listener allowed me to think better in the moment, and to hold less resentment about the whole thing when I was faced with Special Time again.
Talking about our childhoods can really help here. If you want to try it, you might want to ask yourself:
- Who played with you when you were young?
- Did you get warm, undivided, reliable attention? What was that like?
- Or if you were not played with like this, who would you have wanted it from and what would you have done with it?
Re-energise your parenting with Listening Partnerships – Get your free guide here
We tried different times of day, different lengths of time.
I started small, mostly 5 or 7 minutes per child, and then as that became easier I built up to longer. The ability to beam warm attention on someone really is like a muscle—use it and practice it and you’ll get ever better at it.
Re-Focus Your Energy and Attention
I focussed my delight on my child, not the activity.
In all honesty, I dreaded the days where my daughter asked to turn her bedroom upside down and make a slide from her mattress. It was hard for me to genuinely delight in that with all the heavy lifting and subsequent mess. But it was easy to enjoy the sight and sound of the beautiful, giggling kid in front of me who was LOVING my attention and tumbling down the ‘slide’ into my arms, clutching a purple dragon and urging me to have a go.
It’s a subtle difference but for me, it’s an important one: focus on the child, not on what you’re doing. This wonderful person learning and growing right there in front of you is absolutely worth your attention and delight—even if another round of Lego or Small World play makes you want to stick pins in your eyes.
When You Have More Than One Child…
Juggling Special Time for two or more kids can bring on hurdles too.
We tried a whole load of strategies to ensure they did not interrupt the other child’s time, from alternating short rounds of Special Time each through to occupying one child with a screen, audiobook, bath, nap, activity or another adult while the other child had their time.
It went wrong often. Of course it did!
They interrupted each other and squabbled about who would go first. But we were learning and growing.
And the times when it went right were like gold.
Through all of this, they learned to wait. To know that they too would get a turn. That they could occupy themselves for a bit. These skills are crucial in all of life. They are worth persevering with!
Expect the Tears
And there were tears…
Often Special Time leads to upset as our kids sense extra safety and connection and use the opportunity to offload the feelings they have been carrying around.
I got comfortable with Staylistening – where we listen and empathise with our child’s big feelings, anchoring them through the upset without rushing to ‘fix’ the situation.
At various times over the years, I have Staylistened before Special Time, after Special Time, about them not knowing what they wanted to do for Special Time, that a sibling was going first… we’ve done it all (though thankfully not all at once!).
And each time I was able to listen through the latest upset they became happier and more co-operative.
More able to let the other child have their turn without being interrupted. More creative about coming up with ideas for what to do with their time. More sure in themselves that I was there for them, would give them time again, even though Special Time was over for today.
Offloading these feelings leads to real healing – the kind that over time can fundamentally alter a child’s ongoing behaviour for the better. So I’ve come to value and trust in the process, even if in the moment it can feel horribly messy.
Learn more about How Does Staylistening Help You and Your Child?
Clearing the Hurdles: How Special Time Looks For Me Now
Today I did Special Time with both my kids. My son and I lay in the sunshine and chatted. He wanted us to come up with new gymnastic equipment ideas. We talked trapezes and trampolines combined and wondered if you could get some sort of water event in there too. We watched a squirrel in the tree, watching us.
My daughter introduced a new stuffed toy to the others in her bedroom. There was some fighting between the toys and shyness but they seemed to figure it out in the end and were all friends by the time the timer went.
Special Time Is Good For Parents Too
I realised recently that some days now when I’m feeling grumpy and only offer Special Time out of obligation because ‘that’s what we do after breakfast’, I get happier too.
Pausing to notice and really make myself enjoy my children in all their loveliness on their terms means the rest of our day goes better, for ALL of us.
As so often with the Hand in Hand parenting approach, I find more and more that the things I work on ‘for my children’ come back full circle to me, bringing gifts and new ways of being that I could not have imagined just a few short years ago.
What hurdles have you come up against in Special Time?
Lara Zane is a London-based, Certified Hand in Hand Instructor, mum to two children and a former teacher with a love of neuroscience. Lara's areas of special interest and experience include working with children who are highly sensitive, spirited, intense, anxious or aggressive and those who show signs of giftedness/HLP, learning or sensory differences.