Many working parents find that they have less time with their children than they would like. So how can working parents invest their time and energy smartly to make the most of family time and ensure everyone’s needs are met?
When we feel like time with our children is limited, it can create pressure for that time to be 100% fun and enjoyable. Parents who feel guilty about spending time apart from their children can be tempted to give in to whining or complaining (after all, who wants to spend precious family time battling behaviour!). Or, faced with a whirlwind of children’s demands, the accumulated stresses of work can lead us to overreact.
The key to success for time-poor parents is to encourage good behaviour and maintain boundaries using positive strategies that build strong family relationships and help children (and parents) feel good about themselves.
Build a good relationship
Spend time together with your child chatting, playing, and hanging out. Don’t let lack of time put you off – small frequent amounts of time (even by phone) are most effective, so try to find 15 minutes a day that is just about being with your child. Set up special traditions (such as always making pancakes on Sundays, or Saturday morning swim sessions) – these can help you to become an important part of your child’s routine, even when you have limited time.
Encourage the behaviour you want to see
Working parents who feel guilty about not having enough time are sometimes tempted to back away from conflict (see Six bad habits of a time poor parent). But, in the long run, this is likely to cause more conflict not less. Focus on encouraging the behaviour you do want to see, through praise and positive attention. If your child is doing something you don’t like then make sure you are clear on what behaviour you would prefer instead. What would ‘good’ look like in these circumstances? Do they ever do that behaviour? Encourage them to do it more often and/or at the right times by paying lots of attention to the behaviour you want repeated. Catch them being good and praise them for it. (See Help, the kids are driving me mad for more on this!).
Lack of boundaries (or inconsistent boundaries) tends to cause more battling not less. Set a few clear ground rules and reinforce these through praise and reward charts. Rules should tell children what to do (rather than what not to do). For example, “Use words to solve problems” or “Use gentle hands.” Back up rules with fair, consistent consequences when necessary – such as taking away a toy for a short time. Try to agree these consequences in advance to avoid reaching for inappropriate consequences in heated or stressed moments.
Be present when present
It is really important to prioritise ‘turn to’ moments when children want to engage your attention. Be available to them at these moments – when they want to show you something or tell you something – and allow them to interrupt other activities if at all possible. (Remember – that moment will only come once, the washing up will wait). Often, a few minutes of attention is all that is required. If you have an urgent task then try to signal your unavailability in advance and let them know when you will be available to them again. Leave work at work and try to be emotionally responsive and fully in the moment when you are at home (see Finding work-life balance).
Be present when you are absent
Predictable routines help children feel secure. Some children use objects to feel close to their parents or cope with their absence (eg a beddy/blanky comforter for young children or a teenage daughter wearing her dad’s t-shirt). Use technology to maintain presence when you can’t be there. If you will be absent for a special moment, plan ahead to let them know you are with them in spirit: pre-prepare notes, a treasure hunt, a pre-recorded bedtime story to show that you are thinking of them.
Look after yourself
Parenting is hard work, and can be doubly so for working parents: looking after yourself is essential. It’s hard to be a calm, consistent parent when you’re tired or stressed. Have realistic expectations (of yourself and your children) and find time to recharge regularly. It is not the exact number of hours you do or don’t work that matters, it is how you manage the associated stress that makes the difference (see Working mums: to work or not to work? That isn’t the question).
©Anita Cleare 2016
For more on this topic, book a lunchtime parenting seminar on ‘Making the most of time with your children’ for the working parents in your workplace. Or Subscribe to monthly newsletters for more tips and advice.