Balancing Time with More Than One Child

Sep 22, 2010

It can be difficult to find time to share between two or more children, especially if one is more needy or demanding than another. However, being purposeful about trying to split time and attention equally can prevent feelings of neglect, emotional upsets, and low self-esteem.

This idea came from another ordinary observation. We were at the bookstore the other day, and we were browsing in the children’s section for our son. A Dad came in with two kids, a girl and a boy, and wanted them to find books that they liked. The girl, probably about three, immediately went and picked out several books and wanted Dad to read them to her in the story telling area. The boy, I suspect about five, persistently asked about playing with trains. Apparently, he thought that there would be a train set up to play with in the store, and when there wasn’t, he was frustrated.

None of that seems out of the ordinary, so far. However, as the little girl cozied up to her Dad and he began to read to her leaving the boy to fend for himself, I noticed that the boy became more and more insistent about the train. The Dad would stop reading, tell him he could play with trains when he got home, and needed to choose a book. Upon closer observation of the boy’s non-verbal communication, he wanted his Dad’s attention and all of it was going to his sister.

The boy continued with his tantrum over the train, and the father continued to read book number three or four to the girl. At this point, the boy basically gave up and went to wander among the books. But, it broke my heart that the father missed the cues that his son needed his time and attention, too. Further, a REALLY easy solution was finding a book about trains that they could read together.

So, I put together a few thoughts on how to address sharing time among kids that may be helpful. These will not always be appropriate, and there will be sometimes when one child must have more time or attention than the others (illness, grief, extra-curricular commitments, etc.). That does not mean that you can’t be intentional about how you spend your time when it is feasible to be fair and balanced.

1. Don’t neglect older kids. It is easy to focus on younger children who require more and expect more. However, your older children are just as needy emotionally as the little ones are physically. When younger ones go to bed, reserve the time for you and your older children to set a routine or ritual before bed. You can play a game, do a feeling chart, talk about school, anything that means something to you and your child. And as a related aside, resist the urge to include your older children in the caregiving of your younger ones. Kids need to be kids, and while they may feel useful, they should not have responsibilities and expectations of being your constant “helper”.

2. Consider each child’s needs. Typically, siblings are quite opposite in personalities and tastes, especially if they are same sex. This plays into the Birth Order Phenomenon. So, when trying to balance time, think about a moment or two each day that can cater to individual interests, such as looking at plants for the nature enthusiast, and catching bugs for the animal lover. (Notice that you can do both simultaneously in the backyard before dinner).

3. Make a weekly log of one on one time with each kid. If you get to the end of the week, and there is a large discrepancy in time spent with certain children, make a note to balance it better. It does not have to be down to the minute, but a fair split is healthy. If nothing else, it will open your eyes to which child gets the most attention from you, by demands or circumstances. Awareness is key to addressing any issue.

4. Plan a special activity once a month with only one child. You can call it “Mommy/Daddy and Me Day”, “Date Day”, or a play on the child’s name, like “Tyler Time”. The point is to go somewhere special, just you and one child, and really invest in learning about the likes, dislikes, interests, opinions and dreams of your kids when they don’t have to compete for your attention.

It is challenging to be everything to everyone as a parent. Sometimes, you will succeed, and others you will wish you had done better. The goal is not to be perfect, but to acknowledge when we can make adjustments and note issues that we can improve upon. Something as simple as making sure each child has a book before beginning story time is an easy way to communicate that all of your kids are important.