When I learned about Special Time a few years ago, I was thrilled.
I tried it with my 7-year-old son, whose behaviour was very challenging, and the outcome was fantastic. I felt our connection was boosted, and my level of empathy with him skyrocketed. Soon daily Special Time found its place in our family routine: 15 minutes each day of one-to-one time, when my only task was to be delighted by my son. He could choose to do whatever he wanted to do, while I gave him my full love and attention.
I have five kids.
And although I am good at math and home organisation, the harsh truth was that I just could not fit in my ideal amount of daily 15-minute Special Time sessions with each child.
I couldn't fit Special Time into our schedule until I tried these three things
But, over the years, I have developed my way to use Special Time and increase our connection. I call these my golden rules. Special Time doesn't happen as often as I’d like, but I'm happy with the results.
If you are a busy parent with a large family, I invite you to borrow one or all of these golden rules and enjoy the benefits of this amazing connection-boosting tool.
First Golden Rule: Done is better than perfect
I created this first rule after reading a beautiful anecdote in the book, Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, where a mum comes home late and offers one-minute Special Time to each of her daughters.
I loved the idea of such a short amount of Special Time, but was sceptical about how to implement it. I was stuck on offering each child regular, longer Special Time until I reached a point when I realized that shorter sessions were probably the only realistic option for my family.
At that point, I found Special Time with my one-year-old and four-year-old relatively easy, but things were very different for my eleven-year-old daughter and my nine and seven-year-old boys. They didn’t request Special Time, and there did not seem to be a point in our day where we could set a regular time. They would have rejected my suggestion anyway.
How Special Time helped with our after school struggles
At the same time, we struggled as a family to reconnect well at the end of the school day. In fact, we had tried many different routines after pick-up, and still, far too often, the car ride back home was chaotic. There was lots of screaming, fighting, and upset from the older ones, and my two little ones grew nervous with all the added tension.
So, one day, I decided to try something new.
We were still parked in front of the school, ready to go back home. I said to the children, “OK, it takes ten minutes to go back home. You get two minutes of Special Time each. Use it the way you want. I know we are all together in the car, but the same rules apply as for a normal Special Time. No interruption if it is not your turn, and of course, if you do not want to do it, feel free to skip your turn!”
The children were surprised at first, but they gave it a go.
We started with the youngest first. I said to my one-year-old, “OK, little one, it is your turn, two minutes, Special Time!”. Then, of course, all the others started to laugh, as our baby spent his two minutes making baby noises, while I gave him my almost-undivided attention. (Yes, I was driving…)
The children found the situation funny, and at the end of the two minutes, I could feel that the atmosphere in the car had shifted. I put the timer on again for each child. They chatted about the main stuff that had happened during the school day while I paid as much attention as I safely could.
Special Time works in a large family even when you have very little time
I was amazed to see how respectful they were of one another and how serious they were in making the most out of the attention I was offering. We arrived home a few minutes after my daughter had finished her turn, and it was clear that everyone felt much more relaxed.
Now I propose this ten minutes of Special Time in the car every day.
I could view it as not being “real” Special Time, but I see two excellent benefits in this new routine.
First, each child is more serene as they enter the car because they know they will get my full attention for two minutes. Now they know they will be heard, they don’t fight to be.
Second, this routine reminds my older children that Special Time is a real option for them, at their disposal and can be used whenever they need it. And believe me, they make the most out of it!
I spent time worrying that the conditions were not perfect. It has not mattered.
So remember, whatever you can offer, even in a small window of time, is still priceless for your children. Plus, your perfectly-imperfect Special Times can act as little teasers for other, longer times that everyone in the family will enjoy – including you.
Second Golden Rule: Harness the powers of unannounced Special Time
Although the predictability of regular Special Time is beneficial, routines change as children get older. As my eldest ones are becoming tweens, I struggled to have us stick to our daily special time routine, even though I feel we needed it.
And then I came across this quote on Special Time for Teens and Tweens in Patty Wipfler’s booklet Supporting adolescents. It was a breath of fresh air for me and helped me shift my view.
She writes: “When they became teenagers, the channel changed. As teens, they required good stretches of low-intensity grounding time. Our connections would knit invisibly as we shuffled around the kitchen on weekend mornings, went to the store together to buy barbecue chips, or worked together over a T-shirt stain that wouldn’t come out.”
I loved that.
Instead of focusing on a scheduled Special Time with my pre-teens and teens, I developed a radar, set to spot informal moments each day when I could offer the same availability and attention as during a Special Time.
Our unannounced Special Times can now happen:
- When I ask, “Who wants to come shopping for groceries with me?” and my 10-year old joins me for a 30-minute shopping-and-chatting time.
- When I lay down on my tweens’ bed at night time for dreaming-and-cuddling time.
- When I notice off-track behaviour beginning, and I share rescuing-and-love time – a real lifesaver in my family.
These moments still differ from all the everyday moments we spend together. During these moments of Special Time, I consciously give full attention to my child. I slow down and pay close attention to them. My mobile stays in my pocket no matter what notification I receive. The tone of my voice is warmer and more welcoming, and I am physically closer to my child.
I can tell you this is extremely different from the busy mum I am 95% of the time.
If your children are growing up and you find your routines need a bit of a redesign, go for it. There’s real closeness and joy to be had in these moments.
Third Golden Rule: Forgive yourself when you have not been able to do it all
I remember the high pressure I felt when I learned about Special Time. I was training to become an instructor and I remember saying to myself, “This is so unfair! All evidence points to the importance of this Special Time, and I am incapable of offering it to all of my kids.”
Around the same time, I discovered this book from T. Berry Brazelton and Greenspan called The Irreducible Needs Of Children, and felt an added burden.
The book describes four involvement levels that describe “being with a child.”
- Level 1: Being in the same house but different rooms, with no interaction.
- Level 2: Being in the same room but doing different activities.
- Level 3: Being available intermittently, to facilitate things for your baby or your kids in their environment or daily tasks.
- Level 4: Having a direct and continued interaction with your child.
I realized in total despair that as a mum of five, this ladder of availability was tough for me to climb. Level 4 felt like an unreachable step to me.
I took my feelings of guilt and despair to my Listening Time. Getting support helped.
I talked about feeling inadequate as a mum. One day, I exploded with anger, about the extra pressure daily Special Time heaped on my shoulders. I cried, I laughed, and as I offloaded these emotions I regained some peace of mind.
And as that happened, it felt easier for me to adjust my expectations on Special Time. My Golden Rules emerged. They were a good fit for my family and I felt much lighter about implementing them.
Special Time can sometimes feel boring, and that’s ok
I also remember times when I felt bored during Special Time. I really felt like I had to force myself to be interested. This was especially true, early on, when I started. But I realized, listening to other parents during my support groups, that I was not alone. For many of us there was a “fake it till you make it” period that we went through.
Getting comfortable with that feeling helped lessen it. And then the feelings of boredom got less and less frequent
Final notes on how to manage Special Time in large families
Be gentle with yourself. Managing Special Time in your larger family is not always clearcut, but it can be done. Even better, you’ll still see the benefits of greater connection and co-operation even if your Special Time looks or feels short or a little unconventional.
My conclusion is that what’s best for you is what’s best for you. Experiment, test, and analyze. Try these golden rules or make your own. If you feel that added closeness, you are on a good track. If your children can get along better. If they fight less to get your attention, then things are going well.
And when you feel stuck, or that things are not as you’d like, find a good parent who is happy to let you explore all your feelings during Listening Time.
You will see, things will get easier. You will discover your unique Special Time routines and they will be just that: Special for you and your family.
Go forth, brave parent. You have this.