Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Let Them Have Time


A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”

Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.

With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.

I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?

I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.

Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

17 thoughts on “Let Them Have Time

  1. Well done Charlotte…more posts like this are needed. I have also been guilty of brushing my kids away when they wanted me to give them some of my time, and always felt so ashamed and guilty that I, thank heavens, usually attended to them within minutes of the request….shame on me for ever saying No.

    And now that I am so damned far away from them, those times when I didn’t spend time with them, are stuck in my head…you have no idea the ache that resides within when you CANNOT spend time with your idea of the pain.

    To any parent out there who gets impatient with the constant badgering by their kids, all I can say is stop a moment, and imagine not having them around all the time, and then, when the awfulness of it hits you, RUN to do the little thing they want. It’s just time, but it’s the most precious gift you can give your child.

    When you can’t do it anymore, for whatever reason, that’s when you realise how fabulous it is to BE parent..and how lucky you are that your kids WANT to do things with you.

  2. Nice post Charlotte- I do have some slight quibbles with the slight anti technology bias I detected in the Guardian article though. We are a technology loving family. We live on the internet and constantly play games and we watch an awful lot of tv and dvds- but it isn’t exclusionary of my daughter and I really don’t think it has to be, if used correctly. For example she likes Little Einsteins- I’ve watched the programmes with her and we’ve had many discussions about which character is our favourite, we sing the theme tune in the car together, when we went to an Egyptian exhibition at the local museum she already knew a bit about Egypt and could make connections with the displays, at her request I’ve googled pictures of Nile crocodiles for her & I’ve found the Little Einstein’s games on-line for her and helped her play the Great Space Race. It’s all good fun, it’s even a little bit educational, and it’s something we can share.

    I’m very far from a perfect parent but I think more than just spending time with your kids you need to make them part of your life. It doesn’t all have to be about what the child is into either. Sure, trips to the park are great but share YOUR interests too- I treasure the memories of the times I spent with my father with him drinking whiskey, playing the guitar, and us all singing Irish and Scottish folk songs and hearing stories about my ancestors. Nowadays my dad and me swap cds and books and its a continuation of the relationship forged those evenings in my childhood.

    I also don’t think it always has to be about play either. There’s a lot of work involved in maintaining a household and a life and kids should be a part of that too from an early age.

  3. Important point, well made.

  4. Well said. The trouble is, it’s very un-p.c. to say all this, except in very vague terms. As a stay-at-home-mum, I don’t feel I can say “I spend more time with my kids and that’s a good thing”. It’s just not said. I find I have to justify myself, saying it’s just while they’re little, or I haven’t decided what to do next, or I don’t have a visa that allows me to work in this country (also true). When I had my first child 10 years ago, I seem to remember that it was the women who went back to work (as I did, though part-time) who felt the need to justify themselves. How did this do a u-turn, I wonder? I’m not saying either staying at home or going out to work is right or wrong, but it does seem that spending time with the kids has become the icing on the cake rather than the cake of family life itself.

    And I plead guilty to those moments of wanting to be left alone, of telling my kids “later”, of shoo-ing them out of the kitchen….

  5. Wendz, we are lucky that they want to be with us, and I’m sure it’s critical to put the time in now, build the trust, while they are little so that they don’t disappear into the teenage ether. I understand that you feel a lot of pain not having your children near you.

    Ms Make Tea, exactly. It’s not about two million playground visits or Lego building sessions a week. It’s about sharing – their likes, your likes – and forging things you enjoy doing together as a family. If part of that is technology-based, that’s fine.

    Thanks, Ali. Glad to see you here.

    Welcome, Ms Iota. My post is no way intended to be a discussion of stay-at-home vs go-to-work mothers or fathers. Each family does what is right or necessary for them. I’m just saying that when people do have time for their kids, they should show their pleasure in it, not be bored and inattentive. I’m saying do something fun with your children that doesn’t involve spending money: a bike ride, a walk, kick a ball, google the Egyptians. I’m saying that we are so addicted to being busy that spending an afternoon in dreamland with our kids seems like a waste of time. I’m saying, just be. With them.

  6. Here, here Charlotten! Back to Berlin for us! I have been puzzling, shopping, walking, laughing, doing, gardening, cleaning, swimming with 4 mighty time eaters – sorry make that 5!

  7. Well said Charl. You put it so well. 🙂

  8. this is a lovely, lovely post. one I will remember and carry around in my head for a while, because you really hit upon what I strive to do on my best parenting days, and what I know I do on my worst. I love my online time and my creative projects, but I try not to love them at my children’s expense. it’s so important to include them in what we’re doing, and sometimes so challenging, too. making a bed with a five-year-old is definitely more difficult than just doing it yourself–but worth it, because then one day maybe you won’t have to make the bed at all.

  9. Beautiful post. I feel like I spend a lot of time with my kids (especially chauffeuring) but I worry that it’s not “quality” time. Thanks for helping remind me of what’s truly important.

  10. a wonderful post, charlotte. another thing came to my mind while reading that guardian article – that guy has a point claiming that due to the collapse of that information barrier between adults and children plus the permanent access of tv kids are now exposed to stress and confusion they didn’t have to deal with before. but i think the world has become a much more dangerous place than it was 30 or 40 years ago. when i was a kid and my best friend lived next door, we didn’t need parents to play with us for hours on end. we spent hours roaming the neighborhood, nobody worried where we were or what we were doing as long as we promised to stay within shouting distance of our houses. today i know many parents who won’t let their children leave their field of vision because child molesters and teenage gangs might be lurking behind every corner. and that sends a message to those children, too – it’s not safe to go out alone, to play without supervision – and that adds up with all the stuff they see and hear on tv.

  11. I feel the same as Iota does, that I need to justify myself for spending time with Kiko. I feel guilty when we sit and build towers from blocks all afternoon. I’m wondering if this constant sense of guilt whatever you do is a product of the modern world? It’s almost as if we’re *required* to be stressed and “busy doing important things”, and that spending time with children is some sort of decadent leisure choice.

    I need to do cooking and cleaning while Kiko is awake, there is no other way that I would fit everything in. When I’m cooking, I can see him playing and can go and join in sometimes, and I also get him to bring his little plastic pots and pans into the kitchen and “cook” with me. Sometimes he’ll do that! More often an entire garage-worth of cars ends up under my feet!

  12. It’s all true and I’ve been sliding down the sticky slope of busyness recently. I just need to find some balance, between work and chores and children – having three of them that play well together most of the time I often rely on them looking after each other and disappear off to my computer, instead of reading a story.

  13. Wonderful blog and thanks for the link to the article. I am one of these busy people and have to balance my time at weekends between spending time with my girls and husband, do the household chores and find some time for me to do some sports or read a book. Books can be read later and the looks of the hips can be accepted for what they are, but my little people won’t stay little forever. And I would like them to turn into nice big people, so I’ll do my best to provide them with the tools I am able to give them. Now. At the weekend, and the little moments in between.

  14. Charlotte, I especially appreciate your point about parents texting at the table or never letting their kids help with housework. Kids learn from what they see others do, in particular their parents. And I am quite often guilty of shooing the kids out of the kitchen (though yesterday my kids did help make yeast bread rolls and preferring to read while they’re playing.

    I do have to say, however, that I think kids need uninterrupted, adult-free time to play. I’ve seen the way that adult intervention can disrupt imaginative play, at least at a certain age. But, as in the case of your houseguests, it’s also crucial to be able to have fun with kids — it’s an expression of our love and interest in them!

  15. Well said, Charlotte. You forgot to mention that we often use kids and family as a pretext for our “busyness”: don’t they need the biggest house, nicest toys, best schools, largest cars when we drive to fanciest holidays? This if why we feel we have to work so much that we barely see them. And when we are home, we are so tired that we are just not up to it.
    This is the vicious thought circle I am trying to break. One day, I’ll succeed and I’ll be like you.

  16. Pingback: 10 Things I Know « Charlotte’s Web

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