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A Gift of Time

“I think that one of the main things Andy learns is our love for him. It’s a time for touching, smiling, some playing – a lot of warm feelings. But, as Andy has grown and now loves to move and turn over, etc., it needs to also be a time of learning to cooperate – he is becoming much more of a key person in accomplishing the main task, whereas in his early months he was not as actively involved.”

What is she talking about, this mother of a twelve month old boy? She talks about “learning to cooperate” and “a lot of warm feelings”, and “accomplishing the main task”. Sounds pretty important. Indeed, it is. Because she is talking about diapering time. Not what she does to him, but rather what is accomplished together at this special time called “quality time”.

Quality time. We all talk about it. We all want it both for our children and for ourselves. But, do we really know what it’s all about? Quality time, Madge, what is it?

M: Well, it is special. And it is something we all truly want and need. Full, unhurried attention. And, under the right circumstances, it’s peaceful, rewarding time for both parties, because, ideally, it’s a time for no ambivalence, open listening, taking in the other person, trying to fully understand the other’s (your own self too!) point of view. This unique time can happen under many circumstances, but I divide it into two themes:
1. The “Wants Nothing” Quality Time. That’s when the parent isn’t teaching anything, doesn’t want to do anything with the child, has no plans other than wanting to simply be with the child. Just floor sitting, being available, being there with all the senses awakened to the child: watching, listening, thinking of only that child. It sounds easy, but few can do it.

C: Why is that, Madge? What’s so hard about sitting and watching your child?

M: Simply that most of us are used to, are conditioned to doing something. This is not, “I’ve-got-to-do-this” kind of time. It’s more a time for taking in and waiting. We fully accept the child’s beingness just by our receptive beingness. We are telling the child that we are really there and aware.

Not, ” what shall I cook, clean, who to call, etc. ” If you really feel you should do something during this time then it’s not the right time. This is a free-flowing space in which the child shouldn’t feel he/she has to perform, because the parent is not sending out the kind of demanding vibes that say “I am here now, what would you like to do?” Most relationships are based on performance. We tend to stimulate our children to produce something. This should not happen during this time of quality listening and watching. If the child feels like doing something completely on her/his own, then don’t leave. It is very comforting to know that the parent is there, really there without the little person under pressure to have to do something to keep the parent’s attention.
For an infant, it’s a peaceful presence – a quiet assurance in this beingness. This separate play from the parent teaches the child to depend on her/his own inner security. If you do this with a newborn you see the child fully, you really observe and discover a person unfolding. And this separate time doesn’t produce immediate results. Please remember this. Everything, especially new things need time and patience. You must plant and then reap; first put into what you feel is right and then slowly it takes. This instant-everything society expects instant results. Not so with quality time. It’s more like an investment into the future of your child as well as the present: you are available – waiting – the child is the initiator.

C: Madge, how did you handle quality time when you worked with autistic and emotionally disturbed children?

M: I did the same thing I tell my parents to do. I waited. Watched. Listened. I was in a special child therapy room that was being observed at the same time by the parents of these children. I must say I wondered how those parents would react when they saw me simply sitting while they were paying! Only when the children started to open up – respond, react positively, did the parents admit how hard it was for them to watch me doing nothing (!). That “nothing” to them was actually an incredible “something” for me. It requires a great deal of mental energy to concentrate entirely on each child.

C: Madge, you talked about The “Wants Nothing” Quality Time. What’s the other theme?

M: I call it The ‘Wants Something” Quality Time. This is when you do have a goal to accomplish something together, such as dressing, bathing, feeding, etc. But this too should be regarded as quality time. And you can make sure the child knows that this time is different from your “Wants Nothing” time by actually saying, “Now, I want to diaper you. Now, it’s time to get dressed, etc.”

C: Madge, before we continue, would you please give us the diapering guide that people have asked us for?

M: Certainly.



M: So, you see, this is a time when you work for cooperation. If you think in terms of quality, you use the time for learning to do a task together where you expect the child to cooperate. And it should become something you both enjoy doing together. You see, your availability is still there, except during this time you also have expectations. This is the beginning of introducing and reinforcing discipline.

C: Boy, is my Jesse (age 2 1/2) ever into challenging and testing us! It takes over 45 minutes to get him dressed in the morning! Running all over the house naked and giggling and refusing to stay still for a second! I’m going bongos!

M: I’m glad you brought this up. It’s a very important point that we must consider, especially during this “wants something” quality time. You see, a child’s most important task is to become autonomous. Before this time you and the child had what we call a “symbiotic” relationship. Where two together are almost like one. The two depend emotionally on each other, and out of this attachment you both eventually have to separate from each other. This is the separation-individuation stage, when the child becomes an individual. This takes a long, long time in becoming. So, it is during this separation phase that the child can only try her/his wings out by teasing, challenging, game- playing.

C: Well, I’m certainly glad to know Jesse’s doing what he has to do, but how do we handle it? Our mornings are a joke trying to get us all dressed, fed, and out by nine. Jesse’s antics hold us up every time.

M: I know it’s not easy. You have to have two attitudes to deal with this game. 1) You kind of enjoy, acknowledge, tongue-in-cheek him. And, finally, when it’s time to get down to business you are 2) FIRM.

C: Isn’t that sort of a double message, Madge?

M: No, not when you fully understand what’s happening. If you know that this is a phase the child has to go through, you can truly acknowledge it. You allow a little time in the process, you mock a little, you, too, play the game and you let the child know you are playing the game and finally, you become firmer and say that it’s time now. And you don’t back off. You don’t reverse your message. “We really have to get dressed. We’ve played, but now it’s time. Can you do it by yourself, or shall I do it?” You see, now we are not playing games with the child, we don’t have time, because we want to get the job done. Try not to get angry when the game gets longer than you’d like. Play it matter- of-fact, not aggressively. Anger only excites the child to want to play more. So, if you don’t over react, then the game is not that exciting. You don’t respond to the silly business at this second stage. The play is over. “I would have liked to do it together, but now I have to do it for you. Well, maybe you can still help. Here, pull this up.” You see, the fooling around is very much a part of development, but the child does have to mind later: I’LL DANCE WITH YOU AND THEN YOU MUST DANCE WITH ME.

(NOTE: Between the time Madge and I talked on this subject and this article was actually typed, we applied her advice to Jesse’s morning madness. People, it works! The little guy now makes a relay race out of getting dressed. The good part is, he comes back to us each time! So, it’s “Let’s pull off your pajamas, Jesse. Okay, now run to the couch!” A streak of cheek heads for the couch, shrieks in glee and then races back. “Okay, now let’s get on your socks. Good. Now, race to the chair. “TURRIFFIC!” By the time he’s all dressed, he’s done a mile and ready for his nap, but breakfast is on time and we’re almost out by nine! We’re even finding that day by day he doesn’t seem to run away each time. He’s hanging around longer to get the job done. Amazing.)

C: I love your “dance with me” imagery.

M: Well, it is kind of a dance, this quality time. A time of growth, movement, ebb and flow. And, if you give these two kinds of quality time, (“Wants Nothing” and “Wants Something” themes) then you are really growing with your children. It’s the consistency of time you are giving that does so much. Don’t worry if you can’t get together one day, or two, or three. The rhythm of your togetherness won’t be broken. It’s what is happening consistently that counts, not mechanically. You can be together hour after hour in great quantities but not actually connect, see or hear or respond to each other. That’s certainly not what quality time is all about; for the beauty of this special kind of availability is how it affects the older child later, the adult after being raised with it. You’ll find that they never feel they have to be forced to talk. They can peacefully sit with the parent and then open up when they want to. The child never feels manipulated: i.e., “What’s the matter, why do you never talk to me…?” Like I say, it’s all an investment. What you do with your child is not just for the here and now, but for the future. It’s really something to think about during this holiday season. What better gift is there than your full attention? It’s what everybody really wants. A gift of time and attention. This is real giving…

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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