I know a beautiful and bright 7-year old girl whose daddy is sick. She adores him. He is the sun and the moon. She is helpful, and she is strong. Tough as nails. And stubborn to boot. Before her daddy got sick most of our play sessions involved her leading us in a competitive game, one in which I must lose terribly or the game would abruptly stop.
At first I would plan our sessions with lessons to teach her behavior skills, ways to lose gracefully, to say sorry, to talk about what she is good at. But when I started to really see change was when I started doing Special Time with her, Hand in Hand Parenting style.
When we were working on her ability to play cooperatively, this shift in my approach resulted in dramatic changes. Suddenly her timidity when she entered my office melted, she would smile despite herself when I hugged her and let her tackle me. She would dissolve into peels of laughter as I did push-ups and mock-meditated to work up enough strength to beat her at our ball game (I never did). Outside the office her parents reported that she was getting along better at school and at home with her sister.
Then daddy got sick.
Then the real work we were doing became clear.
It wasn’t about the skills. It wasn’t about external success in the world, measured by grades and concrete achievements. It was about love. Feeling loved and treasured, the queen of her life, to feel that an adult’s undivided joy and attention were directed lovingly at her and her whims. This is what changes people. This is why I do what I do. This is the only reason we do anything in life: because we need to love others and we need to feel their love.
This is why you had children.
Even if the children weren’t planned, every parent longs for the depth of love one can only feel as they hold the future in their arms and look into eyes that are so helpless and so trusting.
Now when this brave and strong little girl and I meet there is an inherent joy, even in this trying time. I tackle her and she feels loved and wanted. She tackles me and feels her strength. And she knows she can let her guard down.
I know that 45-minutes per week with me is not going to completely change her life. I know I can’t control the pain she might experience. I can’t make daddy get better faster or provide any guarantees. But I do know this:
Every week she gets a little dose of joy. She gets to snuggle and feel held. She can push and feel her strength. She gets to be the creator of her world. She can even cry or scream and I will listen. And hopefully she leaves feeling a little more resilient against the waves of life.
When she is an adult she may not remember all we did, or even my name, but I trust her day will be a little brighter because she has felt the truth of her inherent value through my undivided presence and attention.
Special Time is special precisely because of the quality of presence you bring to it. It is outside of time and space.
Even if you play with your child regularly, setting up one or two days per week in which you throw all of your quiet, loving, fierce attention at your child for 20 minutes makes a difference. It is protected time.
During Special Time you put aside all the cares of the world. All the things you cannot change in your life or your child’s. All your frustrations and worries. All your to-do’s. Every agenda you have to teach your child and your need to be the one in charge.
You put all those things aside and you just love.
Let your child lead and love every moment with all your strength. You will see the connection grow between you and your child.
And then when things get tough, when there is a loss, when your child grows into stormy adolescence, when your child is faced with difficult decisions in life, he will know you care. He will know you will listen. He will know, deep in the depths of his being that he is loved and very very important. And so will you.
In Special Time she is the boss and I am her willing, (and often dim-witted) servant. My goals are simple. I shower with her presence and attention. I follow the thread of her feelings and thoughts carefully. I find opportunities for affection and laughter whenever possible without disrupting the content of her play.
Make the commitment to yourself and your family today. Carve out 20 minutes per week with each child in which their job is to do whatever they want and yours is to shower them with your undivided and expectant attention. Put aside all the tedium and pressures of parenting for just this small amount of time and watch as the joy of parenting grows roots deep in the earth and sprouts into an undeniably vibrant blossom.
Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.
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