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Why spend one-on-one time with your child

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Son playing with dad

Find the space in your day to spend one-on-one time with your child can be a challenge, but the reputable American Academy of Pediatrics has found there are numerous benefits to a child’s development including promoting their social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills.

Collett Smart, a registered psychologist, educator and author of They’ll be Okay says, “Countless studies indicate one of the key factors that builds resilience in young people is a sense of being connected to adults.”

Collett says that this type of parenting, which includes spending one-on-one time with your child, forms part of an ‘authoritative parenting’ style.

“Research tells us that this style of parenting develops a warm, involved and communicative parent-child relationship,” says Collett.

“An authoritative parent is assertive and has clear standards of behaviour for their children, while simultaneously trying to be supportive and understanding of their children’s point of view.

“Spending time with and meeting them where they are at is crucial to our children’s healthy development. Our children learn values from the adults they spend the most time with in both the day-to-day joys and struggles.”

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (2018), recommends paediatricians ‘prescribe’ play for children and their parents.

The report says that when play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt development. Researchers found that in the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.

The study says that the joy, shared communication and interactions experienced by parents and children during play regulates the body’s stress response.

Setting aside time to play with your child helps forge bonds and strong foundations for future conversations on the bigger topics. This one-on-one focused time communicates to a child that they matter to you.
Collett Smart

The Family Peace Foundation, which aims to strengthen families through evidence-based education on how to avoid or eliminate excessive conflict, reiterates this saying, “Studies show that kids who receive [one-on-one time] do better at school, with greater language skills and higher self-confidence.”

Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, Dr Kyle D. Pruett, emphasises the importance of making time for each child individually in his article for Psychology Today: “Using a homogenised approach that fits all our kids works about as well as the ‘one-size-fits-all’ [jumpers] fit our bodies. The small intimacies that are unique to the way you parent a particular child at a particular time of life are more likely to appear during one-on-one time.”

Who should be prioritising one-on-one time?

Is it more important for the working parent to be spending one-on-one time to increase their bond? Collett says a child needs to bond with both parents.

“A mother is incredibly important in a child’s development,” says Collett.

“We know that a mother’s touch, warmth and responsiveness all affect a child’s physical, psychological and social wellbeing.”

“Research shows that it even has a significant impact on brain size. Children whose mothers were nurturing and provided emotional support in their preschool years were found to have more growth in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning, memories and regulating emotions. And this growth trajectory was associated with healthier emotional functioning when the children entered their teen years.”

As for fathers, Dr Pruett says, “One-on-one time increases the father’s sensitivity to his child’s needs. Things like self-confidence, willingness to explore outside their comfort zone, coping, academic and social skills are all shown to be strengthened with [a father’s] engagement.”

Collett says, “Setting aside time to play with your child helps forge bonds and strong foundations for future conversations on the bigger topics. This one-on-one focused time communicates to a child that they matter to you.”

So… how often?

In the mayhem of daily parenting, the question on parents’ lips is how often and how long do we need to have one-on-one time with each child to make it worthwhile?

While the Family Peace Foundation recommends at least eight minutes each day of one-on-one time with each child, Dr Pruett emphasises how important this time is for children under the age of five. 

“Children grow at such a rapid pace, particularly their brains. The more regular, the more effective, especially before they turn five,” Dr Pruett says.

However, Collett points out that it isn’t necessarily the number of minutes that’s important. She says, “Children will remember the overall relationship and sense of attachment they felt to you. That you spent time with them, had some fun and were there for them when they needed you. One-on-one time must fit into your family routine, structure and children’s age and developmental stage. It will change and evolve throughout their childhood.”

As for working parents, Collett recommends they can still get in that one-on-one time.

“Working parents can spend a short time in the evening playing a game of their child’s choice, and on weekends visiting a park.”

Collett warns parents not to put too much pressure on themselves.

“Please be kind to yourselves parents. When new babies come along or, on occasion, you have a work deadline and you can’t do a bed time story, or go on your weekly park play date - this is not going to affect your child’s brain development. A bad day or week is not going to suddenly destroy everything you’ve put in and your relationship with your child.”

What activities are best to do to make one-on-one time effective?

Dr Pruett emphasises that one-on-one time doesn’t need to be activity based but must be without digital toys and digital devices.

He says, “this one-on-one time need not be task-driven to be useful – often exactly the opposite. Time to ‘chill’ is often better understood by our kids than it is by us, and they are often better at it. But you have to be there, with them, devices off, for unstructured one-on-one time to work its magic on both of you”.

Collett recommends creating a list with your child of things they like to do when they get to have one-on-one time with you, that way you can decide what activities you do depending on how long you are able to play with them.

Your community can help too.

Families, including single parent families, should look to their community to support them in putting one-on-one time into practice.

Collett suggests asking your partner or grandparent to look after the other children while you spend time with a child. She also suggests swapping play dates with a friend, so that you can spend one-on-one time with a child while the other children play with theirs, and then swapping over at the next play date (and returning the favour).

Early learning centres can also play a part in supporting one-on-one time by (if and where possible) having children go to childcare on different days than their siblings – enjoying their ‘day off’ with mum or dad while the others are in care. 

Don’t leave one-on-one time until it’s too late.

Dr Pruett says that “too often, we leave these one-on-ones until we need to repair emotional distance that has grown from some less than happy interchange”. For example, taking them to the park after they’ve behaved badly because we feel guilty for punishing them for the bad behaviour.

He says that these one-on-one moments are “filled with stress, tension and all the things that you don’t want your kids to associate with being with you”.

Instead, Dr Pruett recommends prioritising one-on-one time and using it as “money in the bank” and ensuring your child knows and trusts that you “have them in your heart and mind, not just when they are in trouble”.

Collett Smart's suggested activities for one-on-one time:

  • Read a book at bedtime
  • Play cars
  • Dress ups
  • Go for a babychino
  • Play at the park
  • Walk the dog
  • Craft
  • Go for a swim
  • Bushwalks
  • Movie at the cinema
  • Movie night at home
  • Lunch in the garden
  • Beach day
  • Play a board game