The Greatest Gift You Can Give Your Kids


President Obama’s kids aren’t impressed by his work.

Back in April, Obama candidly admitted on the Rachel Ray Show that his job doesn’t exactly fill his kids with excitement. “When I call them and they say, ‘Daddy, what did you do today?’ I said, ‘Well, I spoke to 35,000 people.’ It’s like ‘Boring.’ It’s not interesting,” The focus of Obama’s interview was the importance of finding time to spend time with your family, even if you happen to be running for President of the United States of America.

In the past it was thought that being a “good parent” meant spending more time away from your kids – coming to work early and leaving late, schmoozing your way up the corporate ladder after hours, volunteering for extra projects and business trips, etc. But over time, parents and parenting experts have come to realize that it’s not how much you give your kid that’s important – it’s how much time you give them.

However, there are different ways to spend time with kids, each with it’s own value and it’s own potential pitfalls:

1. Structured time

Structure is the key to creating a safe, predictable and reliable environment for your kids. Whether it’s a specific time set aside for working on homework together, time spent playing on the weekends, regular trips to the grandparents or even just a few minutes a day to wind down and chat, kids feel much more secure and comfortable if they know what to expect and when. This is not to say that your house needs to be run like a military boarding school – too much structure can be stifling and oppressive. But at least some regular activities should be scheduled, and everyone (that means you, too, mom and dad) must ensure that those times are strictly off limits to outside interference.

2. Play time

Play is very important to kids. As many parenting experts have pointed out, play is the “work” kids must do in order to grow and learn. As a parent, joining in on the play is not only fun for both of you, it gives you a chance to create lasting, pleasant memories and lets you keep an eye on their development. Plus, since habits can be harder to break away from than occasional activities, regularly playing together as a family can create long-term behavior patterns that will stand you in good stead when teen angst hits.

On the flip side, parents who try too hard to be “popular” or “the nice parent” may substitute playtime for parenting, or use play as a reward (and it’s removal as a punishment) rather than a necessary activity. Think of play like a vitamin for your kid’s successful development – they need to get the right amount to grow up healthy, neither too much nor too little.

3. Support time

We all need support in order to grow and thrive. Without your support, your kids will never have the confidence and security to become the people they have the potential to become. Be there when your child needs you to be there, whether that’s a school play or a bad breakup. On the other hand, no one can do more damage to a child than the proverbial “helicopter parent.” Hovering over your child at every moment, doing things for them that they should be doing themselves and getting them out of the consequences of their own behavior are a sure-fire way to ensure your child grows up incapable of dealing with life on their own.

Finally, a word about “quality time.” This is in quotes for a reason. While it’s certainly a no-brainer that you want your time with your children to be quality time, it’s easy to confuse that with what experts call “guilty parenting.” For example, a non-custodial parent may overcompensate for not being around by making sure that all their time spent with their child is “maxed out” – sporting events, amusement parks, trips to the zoo, etc. However, guilty parenting simply sets up unrealistically high expectations on the part of the child, and deprives them of real personal time with their parent – you’re so busy trying to make things perfect that you’re not actually “there” with them.

One thing we know for sure is that memories of experiences linger longer and stronger than memories of things. Think back to your best memories as a kid. Sure, we all remember the times when we finally got that certain toy we’d been begging for, or were surprised with something unexpected. But most of our happiest memories come from spending time together doing something meaningful.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to provide your kids the latest doodads and fancy clothes. But do yourself and your kids a favor and remember not to sacrifice what limited and very precious time you have on the altar of material gain. Because just as no one on their deathbed is going wish they’d spent more time at the office, no kid reaching adulthood is ever going to wish Mom and Dad had spent more time away from home so they could have had one more toy.

7 thoughts on “The Greatest Gift You Can Give Your Kids”

  1. This is so true!
    I remember being so excited on Wednesdays because my mom had that day off and she would pick me up from school. The other days, I had to walk to my babysitters. Those couple of hours we spent together after school was something I always looked forward to and I will never forget.
    I’m 26 now and don’t have children yet, but when I do I plan to spend every waking moment with them, even if it means putting my job second.
    This is one the best things my mother ever did for my sister and I! Not only did it aid us in being more successful in school, but the time spent together brought us much closer.

  2. This is an interesting topic David.

    I think any parent with a full-time job (apart from those looking after their own kids which really is a full-time job) would find it difficult to spend as much time with their kids as they would like. I know I do. On a normal weekday I probably get 2-3 hours with my boys, and that is arriving at work at 830am and leaving soon after 5pm.

    Ultimately I hope to design my life so that I have more time to spend with my kids, but in the meantime I’m left to consider how to spend what free time I do have. One thing I believe is the importance of just “being there” for your kids. You can’t predict when kids will need what you refer to as “support time”.

  3. Amen. Even doing boring things together can be incredibly meaningful. Just by being around my mom and not doing any scheduled “activity,” I learned so much about what to realistically expect from adult life: you have to balance a checkbook, you have to pay car insurance, you have to make a grocery list. Best of all, I learned that you can choose to have fun with these things. The minutes and hours of everyday life hold more value to our children than we can possibly imagine.

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