“Mom, it can be hard being the big sister,” my firstborn said to me on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of one of those moments. You know, the kind where you’re overstimulated and the noise is offensive and there are so many questions to answer while trying to muster the willingness to figure out what’s for dinner.
I acknowledged what she said and asked her to tell me more. She explained that there are a lot of kids in our house, that she always has to share everything, and that there’s also a lot to do, all the time—and she’s right.
I’m a mom of four, ages 1, 2, 5, and 6. Between everyday child care, working full-time, keeping my marriage somewhat in check, and trying to feel (somewhat) like a human, I’ve been pretty busy for the past six and a half years. I’m always doing something for someone, and in that vulnerable moment when my 6-year-old was trying to put into words her feelings of being lost in the shuffle as the oldest child, I still felt the pull of the never-ending list of tasks and responsibilities prying me away from her current needs for connection and support.
At that very point, I committed to something I had been dancing around for too long: consistent one-on-one time with my children, specifically, my older kids. It sounds so simple, but in my experience, it’s a practice that’s been a struggle to start, much less maintain. However, I finally found a good rhythm for squeezing in mommy-and-me dates with my big kids and can attest to how very important it is to do.
While the effects may not be drastic, it’s clear that they both gain something from my undivided attention (and their dad’s—he’s in on this, too). And as their parent, imperfect as I am, it warms my heart tremendously when I know I’ve given them something they really needed; in this case, a present mother.
The intentional one-on-one time I’ve established with my children has been life-giving for my family. I hope you’ll walk away from this inspired and with a few tips to help get you started.
Add It to the Calendar.
It may seem elementary, but chances are you’re less likely to do something spontaneous on a Wednesday night when you have obligations and a home schedule to execute. I book two date nights (one per child, in my case) a month for three months at a time. This allows me to plan around these occasions and also keeps them at the forefront of my mind. Without putting our outings in ink, it’s not realistic to assume they will happen organically. But when I know I have a dinner date with my daughter on the 15th at 5:30 p.m., I treat it like I would any other appointment and make it a top priority.
Create a List of Activities.
I quickly realized after my son requested we go to Target to buy a race car for subsequent outings that I needed a solid itinerary before our dates. When brainstorming ideas, I try to pour into their interests knowing that their siblings’ preferences—and capacities—won’t be part of the decision-making process.
For example, my daughter loves collecting random objects and is curious about everything. I took her to a corner antique shop so she could explore and simply marvel at her surroundings without having to be rushed out the door for her little brother’s nap time. She was so joyful while showing me a jar filled with old marbles, a dusty typewriter, and a Blink-182 record. (So, I guess now that’s also considered an antique.) I felt so much relief in not having to tell her “not right now” or “maybe next time” when she wanted to wander about the shop. It was great—and though she left with a new book, the perusing was free of charge!
Other go-to dates for us include Mexican food and a car wash (for real, they love going), buying a mystery box of macarons from the local French bakery and trying to guess the flavors, visiting the town square to make wishes in the fountain, walking to our neighborhood library, and painting pottery.
Be Prepared for Some Possible Tears.
If you have more than one child, the first few outings may be hard for whoever has to stay home. When this happened to me the first time, I explained the importance of having a one-on-one date and assured my son that the same special time would soon be given to him. It took a few minutes, but he eventually dried his eyes and agreed to play with Legos with his dad. He even wished us a “great time!” as we headed out the door. It was a proud and unexpected moment for me to watch him wrestle with his emotions and come to a place of being happy for his sister without any real tantrums. Moral of the story: There may be many benefits to reap from this practice, so give it a shot!
Don’t Force It, but Be Open.
Going from machine mode to in-the-moment mode doesn’t always translate to your energy level and ease of conversation with your little one. That’s OK! The point is to make yourself available. Plus, they’re kids, and they can have a lot to say. Let them take the wheel on topics to discuss and where to put your attention for a while.
Try not to rush them during this process, either. If you’re at the zoo and your preschooler wants to spend 15 minutes staring at the same bird, try to get on board, and know that just being there with them makes for an exciting time. Don’t put pressure on yourself (or them) to have deep conversations or make specific memories. I’ve found that expectations can spoil the bonding experience.
If you do want a few ice-breakers to have on hand, open-ended questions are a great way to initiate discussion and learn about your child. Try these age-appropriate queries for your next Q&A:
- What magic power do you wish you had? Why?
- If you could choose a new name for yourself, what would it be?
- If you were Mommy or Daddy for a day, what would you do?
- If you could go on an adventure anywhere, where would it be?
- What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?
Speak From the Heart.
You never need the invitation to tell your child how much you love them and share how they are unique, special, and valuable. I aim to speak loving things to my kids every day, but when I’m on a solo outing and feel cool, calm, and collected, I try to take a minute to be intentional and shower them with affection specific to who they are. One day they will be teenagers and probably won’t appreciate my gushy commentary (not openly, anyway), but I hope they remember that their mom made sure to tell them they were extraordinary people—my people—that I’m so thankful to mother every day.