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Reprinted from Child magazine, August, 1997

The Importance of One-on-One Time

Your undivided attention not only deepens your bond with your child
but is a key to good behavior, too.

By Tamara Eberlein

One evening as I tucked my 4-year-old daughter into bed, she said wistfully, "Mommy, I didn't have any time with you today."

Huh? Astonished, I replied, "But we went to the library and the supermarket and had dinner together."

"But we didn't have any fun," she countered.

With a guilty gulp, I realized what she meant. I hadn't really focused on her--or her brothers--for weeks. Sure, I was ferrying the kids to preschool and playgroup, amusing them with trips to the mall, and reading the requisite books before bed. But I hadn't spent much time playing the games they wanted to play, relaxing the way they like to relax, talking about topics they wanted to discuss. With work deadlines looming and our house on the market, I scarcely had time to shower!

"Many parents are so overscheduled that they lose track of where their child fits into their lives," notes Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., a child psychiatrist at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, DC. What's more, parents try so hard to make the most of what little time they have with their kid that they often overcompensate with "enrichment" activities.

But there's a big difference between chatting with your child in order to build her vocabulary and striking up a conversation just because you like her company. "Kids know when they're being 'worked on,'" says Stanley Turecki, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and author of Normal Children Have Problems, Too. "Some of that is worthwhile, of course. But if it characterizes your every interaction, something vital is missing from your relationship."

Fortunately, Dr. Greenspan has developed a fix. He calls it floor time because, at least with very young children, you literally get down on the floor to play. Here's how it works: "Set aside a specific amount of time--at least 30 minutes a day--simply to be together," explains Dr. Greenspan. "No fair using this as an opportunity to teach your child the alphabet. No fair keeping one eye on the newspaper--the idea is to give your child your undivided attention."

So what do you do? Whatever your child wants! The key is for your youngster to select the game, direct the action, control the conversation, and tell you what to do. Your role is to follow your child's lead and actively participate without taking charge.

"Floor time shows your child that you can get on his level and stay interested in him. This gives him a tremendous feeling of being understood and cherished," says Dr. Greenspan, who discusses the concept in his books Playground Politics and The Challenging Child.

Why "Hanging Out" Is Good for Your Kids

But that's not the only benefit. Floor time encourages your child to grow emotionally by providing him with a safe opportunity to open up about problems and to practice social skills. "Floor time helps an aggressive kid express himself with words, not fists," comments Dr. Greenspan. "It lets a shy child practice being assertive, makes an inattentive child more focused, and helps a defiant one be more collaborative."

Floor time also enhances the relationship between you and your child. You discover common interests. You develop empathy and understanding. You come to feel more connected, more trusting, more loving.

Finally, spending half an hour reading a story or winding down with a chat before bedtime can have a positive effect on your child's behavior. Whining, fighting, and otherwise refusing to cooperate are often cries for attention. So when you play a leisurely game of Chutes and Ladders, your child will be less likely to fuss at an inconvenient moment--like when guests are arriving for dinner.

Ready to spend floor time with your child? Keep these key concepts in mind:

MAKE IT A DAILY HABIT. "Predictability and dependability matter more than the amount of time you devote [to floor time]," says Dr. Turecki. "Scheduling 30 minutes together each day is better than trying to compensate for chronic inattention with an occasional all-out effort."

DON'T MAKE IT CONDITIONAL by revoking floor time when your child has misbehaved. "You want him to know that you're on his side even when he's done something bad," says Dr. Greenspan.

SET ASIDE AT LEAST 30 MINUTES. "A warm, loving, empathetic relationship cannot be developed in five minutes of chitchat a day," explains Dr. Greenspan. "It takes time to get into a rhythm so that communication can flow."

FOCUS FULLY on your child. Turn off the television, let the answering machine pick up telephone calls, don't become distracted by the pot on the stove. Give your son or daughter your complete attention.

LET YOUR CHILD TAKE CHARGE. If your toddler wants you to read his favorite storybook 15 times in a row, do it. If your first-grader is keen to discuss hockey, join in--without taking over. If you subject him to a steady stream of questions or have specific expectations of what he should be doing or saying, you've slipped back into "I'm the boss" mode. Ease off. Listen more.

STAY INVOLVED. While it's important to allow your child to direct the action, that doesn't mean you should be a passive observer. On the contrary, you need to be an active participant. So when your daughter sets up a tea party for her dolls, don't absentmindedly remark, "Oh, the dollies are having tea?" Instead, ask, "What do I do next? Do you want me to be one of the guests at the party?" This paves the way for interaction.

Now that you've got the basics, here's what to expect at every age.

Birth to 12 months

An infant can't tell you with words what he'd like to do, so you have to watch for nonverbal clues.

RESPOND to whatever your baby is doing. Is he intrigued by an object--reaching out or widening his eyes? Explore it together. You might say, "These are blocks. We can build a tower. This is a rubber duck. Squeak, squeak."

IMITATE YOUR BABY. When your infant's in an interactive mood--making eye contact, smiling--encourage a connection by mimicking what he does. If he chews on his fingers, nibble your own. If he coos and gurgles, gurgle back.

CULTIVATE GIVE-AND-TAKE. Is your infant shaking a rattle or toy? Hold out your hand and see if he offers it to you. If so, shake it for a moment and then hand it back to him.

TRY SOME ACTIVE PLAY. When your baby is awake and kicking, he's saying, "Let's get physical." Bounce him gently in your lap. Let him grasp your fingers, then pull him to a sitting or standing position. Support his middle as he tries to creep or crawl. Fly him slowly through the air or waltz him around the room.

ENGAGE IN QUIET-TIME ACTIVITIES. An infant's calm yet alert frame of mind is an invitation to read or recite some nursery rhymes, sing a song, or strum a guitar. Strap your little one, facing forward, into a frontpack, and go for a leisurely stroll. Point out the clouds, the cars, the birds, the distant barking of a dog.

TALK BABY TALK. Studies show that babies prefer listening to a high-pitched, melodious, rhythmic voice. Emphasis and repetition--"Look at the kitty. See the kitty? Nice kitty"--will increase your baby's interest and comprehension, as will eye contact and animated facial expressions. Encourage your baby to talk by treating him as an active participant in your exchanges, responding to each coo he makes and waiting for him to reply after you've spoken.

KNOW WHEN TO STOP. If your baby starts to whimper or turn his head away, he's telling you that he's had enough for the moment, according to Charles Schaefer, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, and coauthor of Raising Baby Right. Continuing the play session at that point will only make him feel more and more overwhelmed.

1 to 3 years

Your toddler may have trouble communicating her ideas, so some gentle guidance may be in order. But remember who's in charge. If she gives your idea a thumbs-down (or is slow to give it a thumbs-up), don't push. Suggest something else that reflects her mood (quiet and thoughtful, active and energized, and so on).

PLAY PRETEND--while letting your child assign the roles and direct the scenarios, of course. But don't be shy about sparking her imagination. If she wants to play cowboys with you as the pony, ask, "Is the pony hungry? Does the cowgirl want to trot or to gallop?"

OFFER HELP with a puzzle or building blocks. Follow your child's lead in any conversation that develops.

PULL OUT FINGER PAINTS and let your toddler dictate the colors to use. Or "finger paint" in the shower stall using shaving cream instead of paint.

DANCE AROUND the living room to a favorite tape. Or bounce a ball back and forth. Go for a romp in the park or playground.

INTRODUCE ACTIVITIES THAT YOU ENJOY. Kids are thrilled to be admitted into the adult world, so if your child is searching for ideas, suggest something you like to do. Do you find crafts fun? Work on a collage together, letting her select the materials and decide how they should be assembled on the paper or cardboard. Love to bake? Whip up a cake, then have a messy good time decorating it with frosting and sprinkles.

3 to 7 years

By this age your child can dream up plenty of floor-time action on his own. Your job is to keep up!

EXPECT IMAGINATIVE PLAY with elaborate scripts about goblins, witches, princesses, astronauts, and space aliens. (Guess who gets to be the alien?)

BE PREPARED TO PLAY your child's favorite games over and over again. Encourage him to invent new twists--changing I Spy to I Hear, for example.

LOOK FOR ENTHUSIASMS that may develop. If your child devotes all of your floor time together to his baseball card collection, don't just nod dumbly as he delivers a monologue on RBIs. Bone up on the home team's stats so he knows that you partake in his interest.

TAKE TO THE ROAD. Floor time needn't happen only at home. Take a walk in the woods or play pinball at the arcade.

7 to 12 years

Having fun is still important, but communication is now key.

SHARE HER INTERESTS. If she wants you to listen to her favorite CD, do so--but encourage her to talk about the music. Is she attracted by the lyrics, the instrumentals, the singer's cute haircut? Be open, not judgmental.

REALIZE YOU WON'T ALWAYS LIKE what your child has to say. "Your 11-year-old may spend floor time telling you that you're a fink for not letting her stay up till midnight," Dr. Greenspan warns. Try to empathize, not argue, and show respect for her point of view ("What would you do with all that extra time?"). That, after all, is what floor time is about: listening to your child attentively, responding to her thoughtfully, and dealing with her patiently. Not only will your child flourish when you do this, but you will, too.

4 Signs That Your Child Needs Your Undivided Attention

1. He is deliberately disobedient. This may indicate that he's feeling ignored. Floor time shows him that he doesn't need to act up to get noticed. It also helps him feel cared for and valued while you try to learn if there's a deeper reason for his disobedience.

2. She clings, whines, or cries frequently. This may indicate insecurity. Half an hour of undivided attention each day helps to reassure your child that she is safe and loved.

3. He hits, screams, and shows other signs of anger. Floor time provides a forum for him to express anger more appropriately (for example, through pretend play or conversation).

4. She exhibits difficulty making developmental transitions, such as moving from crib to bed or starting school. Growing up is hard, and such challenges can make a child doubt her coping abilities. Floor time helps her relax and gain confidence.

Getting One-on-One Time When You Have More Than One