The Power of “Special Time” With Your Kids

My kids and I are in Virginia with my parents right now. 

Every summer, we come for out about four weeks. It started a few summers ago, when my husband was doing some major renovations on our house. We needed to be out of the house for many weeks, so we came to Virginia. My husband joined us for part of the time, but mostly the kids and I enjoyed summer at my parents’ house and came home to a beautifully renovated home!

One of the best things about spending this chunk of time with my parents is that, with their help, I am able to devote more one-on-one time with each of my kids. Whereas back in Seattle, I have to arrange for short shots of attention for each of my kids, here I can take them one at a time for longer stretches.

Today, I took my four-year-old out for lunch. We parked at a shopping center and I let him pick the place. We got our food and I let him pick our seats. He chose to sit outside at a little cafe table.

After only a few minutes of sitting there with our food, my son noticed a stink bug on the ground under our table. I would have totally missed it, but he spotted it and pointed it out. For the next forty-five minutes or so, we followed that stink bug as it crawled around on the ground and then, eventually, up the window of the restaurant. He and I would return to the table to take a bite of food and then head right back to “his” stink bug. We studied it up close, talking about it’s amazing little legs, and how fast it was moving and how cool it was that it could walk right up a glass window. We also talked about how cool it would be if we could climb up walls like a stink bug, or like Gecko (from PJ Masks). We laughed together and allowed our imaginations to go wild together. 

It was so much fun.

My four-year-old is the youngest of our four children. He has watched many children come and go from our home, and he has handled it incredibly well. But he has to share my divided attention most of the time, so these one-on-one times, which we call “Special Time,” are precious to us both.

I wanted to share this today to encourage you to do what you can to give your children small chunks (15 minutes or so) of your undivided attention every day, and to make arrangements for longer chunks (going out for lunch, to a movie, out for ice cream, or—one of our favorites—to a thrift store’s toy section) on weekly or bi-weekly basis.

When you do, keep these things in mind to make the most of your Special Time:

  • Look for ways to empower them (they get to choose the game, restaurant, seats, movie, etc.) 
  • Put your phone away and out of sight so you can practice “fully present parenting” (except maybe to take a photo of “his” stink bug!) 
  • Engage them in conversation at their level. Click here for some Preschooler Conversation Starters. Click here for some older child conversation starters.
  • Treat them to a small gift. Perhaps a toy from the thrift store or a coin for a candy machine. I routinely say “no” to those coin-operated M&M machines, so when I hand him a quarter and point to the M&M machine, you’d think he just won the lottery!

All children need attention, opportunities to be empowered and deep connections with their caregivers. But children in foster care need this even more. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how far this practice goes with kids who have experienced trauma and neglect! If you practice “Special Time” with your kids, I’d love to know what that looks like for you! Please share below!

“How I Clean My Room” Visual Aid [Free Printable]

Executive function is what helps us all organize our thoughts and complete tasks. It affects our abilities to process information, demonstrate flexibility, and exhibit self control. (See this wonderful collection of explanations and graphics from Understood for a bit more info.)

In a neurotypical child, executive function grows and develops from early toddler years all the way through early adulthood, peaking around the mid-20’s. For children who have experienced trauma, i.e. neglect or abuse, executive function delays are not uncommon.

One way we can empower our children is to give them visual charts that help them when their executive function skills are still developing or have been stunted. This simple visual is something I came up with to help equip and empower my kids to clean up their rooms. I know it sounds crazy, but it took me a long time to realize that when I told my kids to “go clean your room,” I was telling them to do something that was nearly impossible for them to do. Walking into a bedroom with dirty laundry, clean clothes, toys, and books all over the floor proved to be too chaotic. Simply put, they didn’t know where to begin.

These charts made all the difference!

Not that my kids don’t sometimes resist my instructions to clean their rooms! But helping them to feel more equipped, and therefore more empowered, certainly helps.

Feel free to use mine—I’ve included links for printable PDFs here and here.

Or you can design your own using Canva.com!

10 Ways to Own Spring Break Before Spring Break Owns You

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

I love routine.

I love the rhythm of life we enjoy, with church, school and extracurricular activities forming a framework around which we build in waking, sleeping, play time and down time.

My kids thrive when we have a routine. I thrive when we have a routine. The house runs (pretty) smoothly thanks to these rhythms and routines.

Which is why Spring Break can be so very challenging.

Winter is over (at least chronologically if not meteorologically), and the end of the school year is in sight. Excitement is in the air and we don’t always know what to do with our Big Feelings. And in the middle of it all, we have a full week off from school. Not long enough to establish new routines, but too long for the “let’s just play it by ear” we can sometimes get away with on Saturdays.

(Who am I kidding? Even our Saturdays have to follow a routine, starting with Dad making pancakes. But Dad goes to work on Monday! He is not here to make pancakes during the week of Spring Break!)

Its taken me some time, but I have learned a few things that can make or break a week off from school. If you work outside the home, you have likely already arranged childcare. But if your kids are home with you all week, here are a few ways to own spring break—before spring break owns you!

1) You must have a plan. Waking up on Monday morning, kissing my husband goodbye and facing multiple little faces looking at me and asking, “What are we doing now, Mom?” is not the time to think about what the week is going to look like. A few weeks or even days before the break, take time to do some planning. What camps are available and affordable? What discounts can you find? (Kids Bowl Free and Kids Skate Free are two wonderful resources!) What’s happening at your local library, museums, parks and rec, YMCA, etc? The weekend before the break, check the weather for the week. What days can you plan to be outside? What days do you need an inside plan? What groceries do you need for lunches?

2) Get outside! I make it a priority to get the kids out of the house for at least a few hours every day of a break, usually by 10:00 AM. Playgrounds, day hikes, the zoo, bowling, heading to the Seattle Aquarium (which offers free access to foster families), and going to the YMCA and running around on the track are a few of the things we’re doing this week. Kids need to move, and these are some great ways to engage their minds and bodies!

3) Make-ahead meals. I’m a big fan of cooking a few times a week and having things in the freezer that I can just heat up for dinner. This is especially important now that my family has gone almost-vegan (I’m not giving up my half-and-half!) In the past, I could just grab a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad if I didn’t have time to cook, but now I have to be more intentional. I keep vegan stews and soups in the freezer, along with vegan “meatballs” and sandwich patties for last-minute meals. The witching hour is always a challenging time to make dinner. It’s twice as hard when the kids have already been together all day and are tired, cranky and at each other’s throats right around the time I’m making dinner.

4) Give breaks from one another. My kids are each others’ primary playmates. They are just always together, which can be really sweet—and can also mean “too much of a good thing.” For the sake of pacing, I try to find ways to give my kids space from one another during the day. One way we do that is to go to the YMCA, where they are able to play with other kids. Another thing we do each day is 30-minutes of reading/looking at books on their beds. Each child gets 15-30 minutes of “Special Time” (one-on-one time with a parent, which Positive Parenting Solutions calls “Mind/Body/Soul Time”) each day as well. One child gets his Special Time first thing in the morning, as he is almost always the first one awake. Another child always gets her Special Time at bedtime. However you can make it happen, it makes a huge difference to your kids!

5) Coordinate with other caregivers. I am not always able to make this happen, but when I can, it’s great. I coordinate with another mom or two to take turns having each other’s kids over for playdates so that we can each get a little time alone. Sometimes that means I split my kids up and one goes to one friend while the others go to another friend, but however we can make it work, it helps!

6) Involve your spouse if possible. I understand this is not always possible—either you don’t have a spouse or partner, or that person doesn’t have a flexible work schedule. But if you can, talk with your spouse/partner and ask them when they might be able to give you a little extra support. For me, this means my husband goes to work a little later than usual (sometimes an hour later) and he handles all of the morning activities (getting dressed, eating, etc.) before 8:00 AM. It also means that he is “on call” to take a child who is acting out and needs to be separated from the flock for a little reset. (This doesn’t happen often, but we need options when one of our kids is ruining it for everyone else. Sometimes it’s just necessary, unfortunately.) If you’re the one who prepares dinner each night, maybe you could ask your partner to take the lead on one or two dinners this week.

7) Guard some personal time. Guard it as if it were the Holy Grail. You simply cannot expect to burn the candle at both ends and be surrounded by little people who need things from you all the time and not lose your mind. Whether it’s staying in bed reading a little longer than usual while your partner takes care of the morning routine, taking the kids to the YMCA and hitting the track or a yoga class, or putting a movie on for them so you can sit and enjoy a cup of herbal tea, you need to carve out space for yourself to refresh.

8) Put on a movie, for heaven’s sake! We limit screen time in our house. Generally speaking, our kids don’t watch TV on school days. They each get a bit of screen time (ABC Mouse, Friv4School, or PBS Kids Games) at night, if they are all ready for bed before a certain time. But otherwise, we just try really hard to provide other options for them. (They fight us hard on this, FYI. It’s not easy. They are obsessed with screen time and limiting it is a daily battle.) But I believe we are doing them a service by placing strong boundaries around their minds and what goes into them, especially those who are in elementary school. I also believe we are helping them by insisting that they learn how to entertain themselves without screens! (I recommend the book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch, by the way.)

That said… Spring Break is one of the few times in the year when my kids watch a movie pretty much every day. In the afternoons, around 3:00 or so, when we have been on the go having picnics and zoo adventures and bike rides and the like, everyone (including me) needs some down time. I try to time it so that the movie will end around the time when dinner is ready. The point is, buy yourself some down time. Extra screen time during Spring Break is part of what makes it so fun!

9) Keep to your sleep/wake schedule. I know plenty of families in which breaks from school mean kids can stay up late, sleep in late, and just generally roll with things. While I can totally see why a parent would allow that, I’ve come to learn that it simply doesn’t work with my kids. We need to maintain our same night time and morning routines. The kids each have checklists, and they do them whether we are on a break from school or not. If we don’t, it doesn’t take long for the wheels to fall off and the family wagon to go completely off the rails. Again, kids—especially kids who have experienced trauma in their past—thrive when they have regular routines. This is especially true when it comes to sleep schedules!

10) Stay connected with your kids and focus on having FUN! If you have more than one child, finding time for one-on-one connection can be pretty challenging. But it is something that is so very important! When a parent is intentional about giving one-on-one time to each child on a regular basis, sibling strife can be reduced. For a child in foster care or adoption, connecting with their caregiver is so vital. Anything else that might happen in the context of family flows from this connection. Without it, there is no ground for attachment, trust or respect between the child and their caregiver.

For me, this means finding time for each child to have at least fifteen, if not thirty, minutes of one-on-one time every day, even during Spring Break, even when we are all already together most of the day. Reading books together, playing a board game, letting my daughter do my makeup, and playing chase are just some of the things my children choose for “Special Time.” I find that when I don’t make time for this, the sibling rivalry and power struggles between my kids and each other and my kids and me are worse.

There is no way to plan a perfect Spring Break. The kids will fight, your patience will be tested, and everyone will experience some disappointment and exhaustion at some point during the week. The house will never be tidy enough, you’ll feel like you’re going from one mess to the next, and forget about taking on any big projects that week. (I had a few things I had hoped to accomplish during Spring Break this year. I realized on Monday that I had to put that little list in my desk drawer, to be revisited when the kids are back in school.)

That said, these tips are a big part of how we can not merely survive the day, but how we can really find our way to flourishing, even in the strange season of Spring Break.

After all, we need to take measures to own spring break before spring break owns us!

How about you? Do you find Spring Break challenging? What are some ways you are able to make it a positive vacation time?