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Original RIE Manual

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 is all about? 

It is full unhurried attention. Under the right circumstances it is a peaceful, rewarding time for both parties because, ideally, it’s a time of no ambivalence, one for open listening, taking in the other person, trying to fully understand the other’s 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 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 truly do it. 

Most of us are used and 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 own receptive beingness. We are telling the child that we are really there and aware. Not, “What shall I cook, clean, whom to call,” etc. If you really feel that 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 has to perform, because the parent is not sending out the kind of demanding messages 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 listening and watching. If the child seems to ignore you and is doing something completely on his own, 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 play, separate from the parent, teaches the child to depend on his own inner security. If you do this with a newborn, you learn to see the child fully; you really observe and discover a person unfolding. This separate time doesn’t produce immediate results. Please remember this. Everything, especially something new, needs time and patience. You must plant and then reap. First put in what you feel is right and then slowly it takes. This instant, ready-made society expects instant results. Not so with quality time. It’s more like an investment in the future of your child as well as in the present. You are available, waiting; the child is the initiator.

2. Also, there is the “Wants Something” Quality Time. This is when you do have a goal to accomplish something together, such as dressing, bathing, feeding, etc. This, too, should be regarded as quality time. 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. 

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 when you expect the child to cooperate. It should become something you both enjoy doing together. Your availability is still there, except that during this time you also have expectations. This is the beginning of introducing and reinforcing discipline. 

Around age two, a child’s most important task is to become autonomous. Before this time, you and the child have what is called a “symbiotic” relationship—the parent and child are almost like one. They depend emotionally on each other, and, from this attachment, both eventually have to separate from each other. This is the separation-individuation stage, when the child becomes an individual. This takes a long time, and during this separation phase the child will try his wings out by teasing, challenging, and gameplaying. 

There are two attitudes that are helpful in dealing with these games. 1) You enjoy and acknowledge this playfulness. But when it’s time to get down to business you are 2) FIRM. You allow a little time to play the game, and you let the child know you are playing; then you become firm and say it’s time NOW. 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 yourself, or shall I do it?” Now we are not playing games with the child because we want to get the job done. Try not to get angry. Be matter-of-fact and not aggressive. Anger only excites the child to want to play more. You don’t respond to silly business at this stage. The play is over. “I would have liked to do it together, but now I have to do it for you. Maybe you can still help. Here, pull this up.” Fooling around is very much part of development, but the child does have to cooperate later; “I’LL DANCE WITH YOU AND THEN YOU MUST DANCE WITH ME.”

Quality time is a time of growth, movement, ebb and flow. If you can 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 the time you are giving that does so much. Don’t worry if you can’t get together every day; 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, hear, or respond to each other. That’s not what quality time is all about, for the beauty of this special kind of availability is how it affects the older child and later the adult who was 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. What you do with your child is an investment for the future. Quality time is what everybody really wants – a gift of time and attention.

The RIE Manual for Parents and Professionals Part I: Practical Suggestions for Parents
Copyright © 1979 Magda Gerber

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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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