I have found that 20 minutes is all it takes to become a better father.
The other day, my 20 minutes included flying in my own rocket ship made out of a cardboard box, picking my daughter up in her cardboard box and flying her to the moon, fighting aliens, having a short dance party, and then playing house. (My two girls pretended to be dogs and I was the owner.)
Then, dinner was ready.
I haven’t found any scientific research that says 20 minutes is the magic number, but it’s short enough that I’ll do it every weekday, and I’ve found it’s enough to make a difference in my relationship with my children.
And as a working parent, sometimes 20 minutes a day is all I get. But if I use that time wisely, it goes a long way.
My rule during these 20 minutes: I can’t check my phone, scroll through my email, take a call, or say “gimme a sec.” I can only suggest activities my children may want to do – and then let them take over.
Macy is 4-years old, Anna is 2. Whatever they decide, we all have to do the activities. Together. Uninterrupted.
When I consistently give my kids at least 20 minutes a day, I notice a big difference in my relationship with them. So I’m offering the suggestion that, maybe, you should give this a try. (I’m not telling you, I’m just offering the suggestion.)
At first, if you’re not very good at this, you can include playing video games or goofing around on an iPad. But after a while, try to leave those out and focus on the interaction.
And watching them ride their bikes, swing, or play soccer doesn’t count, either – you have to participate by biking, swinging, or playing soccer with them. Being present isn’t enough.
After 20 minutes, you’re welcome to take a seat and watch. But give at least 20 uninterrupted minutes to your children everyday, and your relationship may well change for the better – especially if you haven’t been playing with them at all.
If you’re thinking, “Everyday? Why can’t I just play with them for three hours on Saturday? Won’t that be plenty?” It might be – but I’d like to share a story with you.
‘She’ll grow out of it’
The reason I got on this whole kick was because my oldest daughter wasn’t even 3 years old, and she wouldn’t let me hold her, play with her, or sometimes even talk to her. My initial thoughts were, “Well… she’s a girl and girls are kind of dramatic. I’m sure she’ll grow out of it.”
But a friend of mine who had older daughters said that if I didn’t do something right now, nothing would change. Our relationship wouldn’t magically heal itself. She knew this because her grown daughters still don’t have a great relationship with their dad.
Her advice was that I would have to work on my relationship with my daughter instead of just hoping it would get better on its own (dang!).
So I began spending whole weekends with her (at the time, I only had one). It was exhausting, but she started coming around.
After a while, however, I noticed a pattern. On Saturday morning, she’d start off timid. By Sunday evening, she and I were doing great. Then by Wednesday, she had forgotten all the fun we had together, and we would have to start over again Saturday morning.
For some reason, I thought I could ignore her during the week and simply make up for it on the weekends by spending a lot of time together. I finally realized that having one great weekend was not powerful enough to carry over to the next weekend.
Being a weekend father wasn’t cutting it – I had to be a dad everyday.
Initially, I didn’t think this was possible because I wanted quality. And to me, quality meant long outings, spending money, or doing something “special.” But I couldn’t do that everyday.
Turns out, I had the wrong definition of what “quality” time meant, according to Deana Murphy, Child and Family Development Program Coordinator at UNC Charlotte. When I ran all this by her for this story, she explained that quality is simply “Playing and/or talking with your child about what interests her, letting her take the lead, and allowing her to have your full attention...”
And that definition makes spending quality time more achievable. I didn’t need a special outing that lasted hours. Nor did I need to spend money buying ice cream cones, princess outfits, or visiting attractions. I just had to play, interact, and talk about what she wanted to talk about.
So I began focusing on the type of time I had with my daughter and the consistency of those interactions through the week. And I vowed not to let distractions such as sports updates on my phone, emails, or text messages to interrupt us.
Putting the phone away
At first, this was really challenging. Like many people, I’m somewhat addicted to my phone and social media. So to make this new behavior easier for me, I started out with just 20 minutes of uninterrupted time with my daughter. After a while, it would end up being an hour or more – but if I didn’t have much time, I focused on setting aside at least 20 minutes.
After a few months of this on a daily basis, I observed a huge difference. Before, she didn't want to go with me to the store or be left with me while her mom ran errands. Now, she looks forward to the time we get to spend singing songs, riding bikes, or making crafts.
Twenty minutes a day during the week is how I began. And for most fathers who come home at 6:30 at night, eat dinner, and put their kids to bed around 8 or so, 20 minutes may be all you get. But if you use that time wisely, and stow away your distractions, it might be all you need to affect your relationship with your children.
Try it for a month and see what happens.