Melissa Hoch
The author and his son Max spending time together at the park.

Policy makers, parents and the public are concerned with perceived declines in parents’ time with children. Data from two national surveys show that nearly half of parents report feeling like they have too little time with children.

Granted, it’s difficult to juggle family life with work and other obligations, but studies show that parents place a high value on this one-on-one time. They rate spending time with their children higher than other activities, see family time as an important experience that produces long-lasting and happy memories for children, and recognize that spending time with children is necessary for children’s proper growth and development. Plus, research reveals that most youths like spending time with their parents.

So what are you waiting for?

Here are three simple steps for spending quality, one-on-one time with your children.

1. Commit to making your children more a part of your daily schedule. Make a list of your regular activities and consider how much time you are devoting to each of those activities. Find ways to limit the time spent in activities of lesser importance in order to make more time for your children.

For example, I know a man who neglected his children because of his obsession with sports. When his wife brought the problem to his attention, he made some admirable changes. For example, he became more selective about which games to watch, and sometimes he turned off the television during the first half and watched only the second half (or, when watching a full game, turned off the game at halftime to play with the kids). On other occasions, he took his kids to a local sports event to watch it live.

2. Make sure that you’re spending quality time with your children. Instead of watching TV in silence, try to be more interactive. You can eat dinner together every evening, go to the pool, play a board game, have a picnic in the park, or go to the library for a number of activities (like storytimes, book clubs, arts and crafts, etc.).

Playing outside with your children is a simple act that can have major benefits. According to a recent study by Sandra Hofferth, Ph.D., a professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland, children’s time spent out­doors has fallen dramatically: children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured and spontaneous play a week. Decades of research has shown that this type of play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual and social-emotional devel­op­ment at all ages.

3. Effective parenting involves a schedule which includes individual time with each parent. Susanne Denham, Ph.D., in her book "Social and Emotional Prevention and Intervention Programming for Preschoolers," says that the relationships children establish in the home influence the relationships they establish outside the home; thus, “the development of a positive, consistent, emotionally supportive relationship with each child is primary.”

Individual time can foster a warmer, stronger relationship by allowing the parent to focus on the individual child’s needs and interests. According to Stanley Greenspan, Ph.D., author of "First Feelings: Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child," individual time with your children shows positive regard, emotional availability and responsiveness. Anita Gurian, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, suggests that individual time with children can encourage individuality, reduce favoritism and curb sibling rivalry.

Here are some ideas for spending quality, one-on-one time with your children. Some are more elaborate than others; fit them to your circumstances:

  • Have a bed time schedule, with older children going to bed later. Utilize the staggered bed times to give you some one-on-one time with each child reading, talking, etc.
  • Make cookies together, then walk together to take a plate of your goodies to someone in the neighborhood.
  • Take a child out to breakfast before school or pick one up for a lunch date. A variation of this could be to take your own lunch to school, eat with your child in the cafeteria and go out to play during the lunch recess. Some parents have a tradition of taking each child out to breakfast on their birthday, whether the child is in school or not.
  • Schedule one-on-one play time. If this seems overwhelming, just start by giving each child a five- or 10-minute block of time each day. One day, let your child decide what he or she wants to do with your undivided attention, and you decide the next day.
  • Create pillow notebooks. My wife, Melissa, bought some notebooks, wrote something special to each child and placed them underneath their pillows. At some point (some sooner than others), each responded with a note, and placed the journal under Mom’s pillow. The pages are filling up. Sometimes the notes are short and funny. Other times they are long and serious. Occasionally there are complaints about how crazy Dad is. The bottom line is, they’re communicating — a critical element of any successful relationship.
  • Set a parent/child date night. I know of a number of families, including ours, who heartily endorse this idea and schedule individual date nights with their children. My wife put a little twist on this: For Christmas last year, we bought each of our children a date night gift aligned with their interests: Ashley’s was a gift certificate for a local ceramics studio, Emily’s was two tickets to the local theater, and so on.
  • Plan one-on-one trips. My dad was a big proponent of this idea, taking each of his five boys on a different business trip. Whether it’s a “staycation” (where you stay at home and go do some local activities), an overnighter or an extended vacation, this type of trip can be valuable in maintaining or building a strong relationship with each child while creating many adventures and wonderful memories. You could give your child a budget, let him or her plan the itinerary, choose a theme song for your trip and download some information about the area you’ll be visiting. For example, my daughter Ashley read up on the Arlington Cemetery and the federal government before we went to Washington, D.C.; Emily learned about the Beach Boys and the Mormon Battalion before we visited San Diego; and Haley perused some Emily Dickinson poems prior to our visit to her home in Massachusetts.