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PEP Blog

11|03

The Secret Sauce of Parenting: Special Time with Your Children

By Donna Sawyer, PEP Parent Educator

Question:

What is the one thing a child consistently wants from a parent or caregiver?

Answer:

Attention

Question:

How can you give quality, focused attention to your children in a way that fills their cup so they can entertain themselves at times when you are busy – on an important phone call, preparing dinner, teleworking or otherwise engaged?

Answer:

“Special Time”

Question:

What is “Special Time”? How does it work?

Answer:

“Special Time” is a way to offer encouragement to your child by engaging in a one-on-one, focused activity for a brief period. It can be done with children of all ages. Your child determines what the two of you will do together and takes the lead in determining what each person will do while you talk and work or play together. It is very important that the activity be your child’s choice and involve interaction with you. For preschool and elementary school-age children, some examples may be working on a puzzle, having a tea party, playing school where the child takes on the role of teacher or playing with Legos. With middle and high school-aged children, they may choose to go to a coffee shop or another destination for conversation and connection with you.

For children ages 3-6 years old, start with 10 minutes and gradually increase to 15 or 20 minutes. With school-age children, you may want to schedule 25-30 minutes. With teens, you and your child may not want to schedule this time on a weekly basis, but rather once or twice a month. You know your child best and what their needs are.

Question:

I already spend LOTS of time with my child(ren). What is different about “Special Time”?

Answer:

During “Special Time,” the parent or caregiver will not answer the phone, check email or allow any other distraction to interfere. This time is just for you and your child – with no interruptions. When the timer indicates that the time is over for the day (and your child will probably be very disappointed), go to the calendar and schedule the next date and time with them.

This time needs to be scheduled in advance and occur on a regular basis. Discuss the date and time with your child and let them see you write it on the calendar. It’s a date! Note the time and look forward to it with excitement. When the date and time arrive, tell your child that you will use a timer to indicate when the activity will start and end.

After you have experienced this consistently, you should notice a positive change in your child’s behavior. There will usually be far less whining and dawdling to get things done, and more cooperation and willingness to follow established family routines.

The Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland includes “Special Time” instruction in its online courses.

PEP recommends the following guidelines when organizing “Special Time”:

  • Schedule it regularly (with your child, mark it on the calendar)
  • Arrange it in advance (this way, it is something to look forward to)
  • Use a timer to signal when the time is finished. With preschoolers who have not yet grasped the abstract concept of time, consider using a “Time Timer” (timetimer.com) to provide a visual indication of when time is up
  • One parent and one child completely focused on each other
  • Child-directed activity
  • No interruptions or distractions (phone calls, emails, etc. have to wait)
  • No screens (this time must be interactive between you and your child)

As parents, whether single or with a partner, you are aware of the challenge of finding time to attend to your children’s needs as well as your own. In a two-parent, one-child household, each parent can schedule a time during the week. If you have more than one child, it will be especially beneficial if both parents can schedule their own individual times so that each child has at least one during the week.

You could schedule “Special Time” when a younger child is napping or when a sibling is at school or a play date. Or you might arrange for a sibling to have a short visit with a neighbor’s child while you have it with your other child (with a reciprocal visit at your house at another time). After you have established a routine, your children will begin to understand that each is being treated fairly and they will be patient while waiting for their own “Special” one-on-one time with you.

It is important to remember that “Special Time” is unconditional.

If it has been scheduled, it must take place. When your child is misbehaving (and you are least interested in participating in this activity), it may be an indicator that the time is especially needed by your child. Take a deep breath and engage. As mentioned above, with time and consistency, you should see a change in behavior for the positive before long.

As parents, we want our children to become thoughtful, kind and independent as they grow. Making the time during your busy week for “Special Time” is one way to encourage these characteristics as they grow and develop. Enjoy!


Developing these strong, collaborative parent-child relationships is at the heart of PEP’s programs. Start with our 4-week online master class, Encouragement! Building Your Child’s Confidence from the Inside Out. Or visit our library of dozens of on-demand parenting videos

This article originally appeared in the Washington Parent magazine, November 2021 issue. 

Learn more about PEP at www.PEPparent.org

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