We have a big family. With two parents versus—yes, versus—four kids, we do a lot of tag-teaming, trade-offs, and this-isn’t-my-problem-right-now looks. Mostly, we are always in a state I call “Chaos Management.” Not only are we a big, loud group, but we are almost always together: a package deal.
We’re trying to raise responsible, kind, respectful children, but like many parents, we often feel like we’re failing. Sometimes one kid needs far more attention than the others, or even more challenging, multiple kids need extra attention at the exact same time. We’re constantly trying to create balance, which is next-to-impossible.
The other day, I told my husband that I was downright exhausted and frustrated. I felt like a ping-pong ball, going back and forth—all day, every day—between my four kids. I had nothing left, and I was certain my kids felt the same disconnection. What could we do about it?
The next day, I had an idea. What if I made a list of the specific, effective ways I could spend time with each of my kids, ways they love and respond to? Instead of always trying to generate superficial moments on demand, what if I was proactive and prepared? Would it work?
I pulled out a notebook and wrote each kid’s name at the top, and then started filling in the things they enjoyed doing with a parent. One of my tweens loves art projects, baking, and just talking. She constantly says to me, “Ask me questions, Mom.” She wants me to interview her about her life and her day at school. I know, shocking given that she’s a tween—but hey, I’ll take it.
Another one of my kids responds well to competitive fun, like playing a game of basketball. She also likes looking at weird-but-true or gross-stories books and learning scientific facts. The other day she informed me that honey is bee puke. We also play the Favorites Game together—a game I invented where we simply ask each other about our favorite things in categories like food, movies, and sports. Easy and simple? You bet. Her other favorite? Food. She’s thrilled if we take her out for a special snack, sans siblings.
It was fairly easy to make a list for my older kids. After all, they can say what they enjoy. However, my younger kids were a bit more challenging, initially. A lot of younger kids like the same things—one of them primarily being attention. You know, “Watch me, Mom” on repeat. No joke, my toddler spent a solid month demanding I glue my eyes to her “crooked somersault show” and then wildly cheering like she’s a gold medal winning Olympian.
I realized I was making it more complicated than necessary. My little kids love time with us—reading a favorite book, playing with toys, and a good, old-fashioned wrestling match or race. It takes very little to please them, if we can just carve out some undistracted time together.
It’s one thing to make a list, but now I’m working on putting my words into actions. First, we’re being more diligent about scheduling dates with our older kids. These are times they know that they will get one-on-one with a parent to do something of their choosing. We use the list to guide our activity-of-choice—to offer suggestions. I know it sounds staged to schedule dates, but if we don’t do it, well, we will never get around to the connection time.
Second, we’re trying to take advantage of opportunities that are already built into our days. Twice a week, I bake something to have on-hand for school morning breakfasts. I’ve started having my oldest child, the one who likes to bake, help me. We put on some jazz—because yes, we like jazz—or whatever she wants to listen to at the time, and we bake together. If we have a home project that involves some heavy lifting and tools, my second kid is all-in.
Bedtime is our other opportunity to spend some time together. We get the younger ones down first, then my husband and I switch off which older kid we put to bed that night. This gives us time to work in something from their list, like playing a few rounds of Uno, reading a book, or chatting. I want to relish in these tween years, because I know that with each passing day, my older kids are working toward more independence.
What I’ve learned over my decade-plus of parenting is that connection takes time. Relationships are worth investing in. The list we made has helped guide us—so we can take advantage of the few quiet moments we have with each child.
There are absolutely times where I think, “Everything I do is for these kids,” and I want to skimp on the one-on-one time. After all, I may have spent the entire day sorting laundry, washing dishes, running kids to appointments, and prepping snacks and meals. However, I have to remind myself that none of these were done with my children, which means no eye contact or conversations. The things that really matter take time and energy outside of the day-to-day duties.
I often fail at connecting with my kids in the ways I know I they need, but making the list has helped me. A physical piece of paper has been a powerful reminder of what really matters—and how to make it work. Now if you’ll excuse me. I have to go kick my tween’s butt in basketball.