When our kids are babies, we cater to their every need and want. We’re their whole world, so it doesn’t matter how exhausted or busy we might be — when they call for us, we jump to attention. We go everywhere they go, and experience what they experience right along with them. As they get older, though, the way we spend time with our kids naturally changes — or, at least, it should.
The way we connect and the experiences we hold tight to should adapt over time, but we may actually find that despite our best intentions, a lot of that time together is wasted. We try to do too much, or what we think our kids want us to do. We get stuck in a rut, prioritising those same things we used to prioritise.
Amy Jen Su, who co-founded an executive coaching and leadership development firm, writes for the Harvard Business Review that this is what happened with one working mother she was recently coaching. Carole was twisting her schedule up in knots to make it to her daughter’s weekly soccer practice, and her daughter just didn’t really…care. But there’s a way to home in on the high quality time with our kids versus the high quantity of time, so that parents can release the guilt of not being able to do All The Things — and kids can feel like we’re still there for the things that truly matter to them.
Here’s what Su says Carole — and all of us — should do:
Instead of ending up feeling underappreciated or guilty about the time you do or don’t spend with your kids, you can proactively triage your parenting time and energy. I recommended that Carole try an approach I use with leaders at work: prioritising according to contribution and passion. To do this, think of one of your children and answer the following questions.
1. Contribution: Which of the activities I do, tasks I perform, or types of support I provide does my child value the most right now? (Answer for each child you have individually.)
2. Passion: Which activities, tasks, or types of support give me the most motivation, inspiration, or energy as a parent?
You know which activities you love doing with your kids, but maybe you’ve been spending just as much time doing the things you don’t love because you felt like you should do them. And maybe you’ve been doing those things because you think it’s super important to your kid — but maybe it actually isn’t.
The types of tasks and time our kids value and the support they need changes drastically throughout a childhood. When they’re little, they may want us to be there at every school drop-off and pick-up so they can relish those few extra minutes of having a captive audience — until they get a little older and would prefer to ride the bus or walk with their friends. You may be able to tell which activities they value the most, but if you’re not sure, ask them. Once a year or so, you can sit down with them to talk about it, like Su does:
As a working parent myself, I use a ritual each year where I sit down with my son at the start of each school year and ask him the top three things I do as a mum that he values the most. When he was younger, I made a list of all the things we did together and had him put a star next to his favourite three items. Now, that he is older, it’s a much more open-ended conversation. Then, to find the sweet spot, I line up his top three contributions against my top three passions.
That’s where the sweet spot — the wisest use of your parent energy — lives: in the spaces where their highest value overlaps with your biggest passions and inspirations. You may both love to take walks together, for example, play card games, or shoot hoops in the driveway. Or you might love cheering them on in their swim meets, and it’s equally as important to them to have your support when they’re competing. These are easy parenting wins.
The first activities to drop are the activities that they value the least and that also drain you (that’s soccer practice, if you’re Carole). What we’re left to debate are the things they value but drain us, and the things we love to share with them that they don’t care much for.
For the former, it’s probably time for us to back off, as we’re putting too much emphasis on something they may not even be into anymore (you love watching them dance in their ballet class, and maybe they don’t want to disappoint you by quitting, but they’re just not enjoying it these days). And for the latter — the things they value that also zap our energy — look for ways to reduce your involvement, maybe by hiring someone to take care of tasks in your place if you can afford it, or swapping roles with a partner who may find it more fulfilling.
As you think it through, it’s important for you and your kids to remember that this isn’t about spending less time together — it’s about making room for those things you both look forward to the most, finding solutions for the areas where you don’t totally sync up, and giving yourself permission to ditch certain things that you may still only be doing simply because it’s what you’ve always done.