How to make the best of the one hour you have with your kid every night

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In the daily scramble, don’t forget that your kids just want to spend time with you.
In the daily scramble, don’t forget that your kids just want to spend time with you.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Ordonez

A fellow working mom recently told me there’s only one parenting article left she wants to read:

“Can you just tell me what to do with the one hour I have with my kid every day?”

It’s a hard thing to admit that that’s all you (we) have sometimes. But the reality for parents working outside the home is that by the time you walk in the door, figure out dinner, check homework, prepare baths and bedtime, an hour is probably a generous estimate.

How do you make the best of it?

I asked three Quartz contributors—all parents themselves who think both thoughtfully and quantifiably about child-rearing—for their take. They are Jenn Choi, who runs the blog, Toys Are Tools; Nancy McDermott, a once-board member of the online community, Park Slope Parents; and Francis Thompson, an engineer and father of 12 kids who all paid their own way through college.

Here are their tips:

Talk naturally

Talking to your kids should be easy, but a whole series of prompts has perhaps made us overthink our exchanges, or ruined the chances of serendipity. “Prescription is the kiss of death,” says McDermott. “I used to cringe when I’d see some parent asking, ‘What was your favorite thing at school today?’ on the walk home when that was the advice du jour. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself, it was more that it felt awkward in the way the dad said it and the way the kid shrugged.”

Instead, Thompson suggests asking why. “Have subjects that stretch their mind such as ‘Why do you think the sky is blue?’  Or find out what their favorite color, food, activity, subject in school is—then ask why, again and again.”

Or just be. McDermott: ”Why not ignore expert prompts, turn off your phone and focus instead on enjoying spending time with your child?”

Play games

If you want to do something together, or just be together, Choi says games are a good bet. If you want to start a tradition, she suggests finding the same game to play over and over, so it becomes special and something you have in common.

“Games are intimate but at the same time you have the comfort of rules to encourage smiles, spunk,” she says. “When you play a game, you are sharing who you are. It is just different because it is not as naked like talking. This is why games are used as icebreakers.”

Rather than compete against each other, video games might allow you to work together cooperatively to solve a puzzle, says Thompson. He also suggests just heading outside to play catch.

Try crafts

The good thing about games is that you can resume where you left off, night after night, says Choi. She also suggests trying to do a craft, or something that won’t wind up the kids before bedtime. “It has an end. It is visual and thus the result acts as a reminder of the activity. It is also not a face-to-face activity but still allows for joint attention and some autonomy as well. Thus it can be less awkward,” she says.

Do chores

You have to do them anyway; might as well integrate the kids, advises Thompson. “Kids love working with the parent. You must let the child do some of the work. Let them have the opportunity to fail and be by their side the whole time. Laugh about it, talk about it,” he says.

Can they read a recipe, measure ingredients, hand you a wrench, pick up toys or clothes? “Don’t lie and say you like their work if you did not, but tell them you appreciated their trying to help and working with you, which I hope is true,” says Thompson.

If they get in your way, hug them. You cannot have a child—especially one who hasn’t seen you all day—feel unwanted or ignored, these experts say. Children want consistency so helping with dinner, cleanup, and the younger children also provides a sense of belonging, night after night.

Babies need quality time too

Missed bedtime? Thompson says to pick them up anyway. “This is the hour for you to spend with them. Yes, you are doing nothing but it builds the safety you provide in their lives.” Other ideas for the littlest ones: reading, singing, and playing peek-a-boo.

And as they get older

Remember teenagers do not want to say they want you there—but they do. Don’t say, “I am going to ‘watch’ your soccer practice”; say “I will drive you there” and let a conversation just happen.

They will not tell you they need you—but you can tell them you need them. If you assign an older kid a task, she or he is more likely to engage with you.

The most important advice from Thompson: ”STOP what you are doing and listen. Do NOT say ‘Can you wait until I finish this?’ If you stop what you are doing, you have just reinforced to your teenager that they are more important than the work you were doing. While they are talking, try not to interrupt. See if you can repeat back to them, what you heard and then probe to see if they want ‘help’ or ‘suggestions.’ Often they just want someone to listen to them.”

Maybe the Victorians had the right idea

Typically after dinnertime, the Victorians dedicated an hour to family time, usually to read books aloud. McDermott says that might not be everyone’s thing but the important lesson is to set aside time to connect. “When I was a kid, we’d sit on our parent’s bed while my dad took off his tie and changed out of his work clothes, just hanging out. We didn’t do it on purpose. It just kind of became the thing we did.”

She still remembers the smell of his aftershave.