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5 ways that busy parents can connect with their kids

Organizational expert Julie Morgenstern spent four years reviewing human development research and has coached many parents. Here are her tips for parents who want to spend more quality time with their kids.

5 ways that busy parents can connect with their kids
[Photo: Thiago Cerqueira/Unsplash]

I see you, ambitious parent. You’ve always prided yourself on working hard and achieving your goals in your career and personal life. Now that you’re a parent, you apply the same drive and effort to helping your kids get things just right.

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Your household might be a well-oiled machine (or close to it), and you might have an elaborate system that ensures your kids do their homework, eat their broccoli, get enough sleep, and make it to soccer practice on time. First of all, if this sounds like your reality, consider yourself very lucky. Yet you can’t help but feel that no one—not you or the kids—seem to have very much time for connection with each other. It’s go-go-go all the time.

The dilemma of the “responsible doer”

I spent four years completing an extensive review of human development research (and nearly 30 years coaching parents from around the world). I’m also a single mom. I’ve combined those experiences to create a simple parenting framework, part of which is a parenting profile. I call the parents who fall into the category above the “responsible doer.” (To be clear, not all high-achieving parents fall into this category, although many do.)

Responsible doers are highly productive and very organized—they love the feeling of checking items off a to-do list. As a result, they find it hard to slow down to the speed of their kids. After all, there are no checklists to how to connect emotionally with your child.

My client Jocelyn is a textbook responsible doer who had a successful career in finance. She worked like a maniac all day long, rushed home to get dinner on the table, clean up, help her daughter with her activities and get to bed, and took one more spin through her to-do list. She did it all over again the next day.

Jocelyn felt so much pressure to get her daughter, Nina, to sleep by 9 p.m. that she basically didn’t spend any relaxed time with Nina on weeknights—apart from nagging and keeping the trains running on time. Jocelyn’s parenting approach was taking a toll on their relationship.

Modern working parenthood needn’t be this way. You can have an organized, efficient home and deep connections with your kids. Finding a deep sense of fulfillment in your work is nothing to feel guilty about, as long as your kids never feel like you love your work more than you love them. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that women tend to have this guilt more than men do. As economist Emily Oster wrote, society judges women for not spending enough time with their kids. At the same time, they question women’s commitment to their jobs if they leave the office early to pick up their kids from school.

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As a parent, if you find that every moment at home is consumed by doing things for your kids—instead of just being with your kids—you might want to consider taking a look at these four things.

1. Are you relating to your kids or trying to teach them all the time?

By relating, I mean spending time with your kids in their world, doing whatever they want to do. If your children are young, you probably get plenty of invitations, “Come on, mom, watch me!” If your kids are teenagers, you probably want more chances to peek into their universe. Teaching is a very different (and equally important) part of parenting–whether it be making a sandwich, shaking someone’s hand, or how money works. As a parent, it’s far too easy to confuse the two and think you are relating, when you’re actually teaching, and that can make you feel less connected.

Here’s a simple way to describe the difference: When you’re teaching, you’re bringing your child into the adult world, and they are the student of you. When you’re relating, you enter your child’s world, and you become the student of the child. Relating involves spending time on topics or activities of interest to your child. And if that means doing something that bores you, that means that you need to learn to notice what your kid finds so engaging about it. You might even learn a thing or two from them.

2. Focus on short bursts of undivided attention

Working parents (particularly mothers) often feel so guilty about being gone all day. As a result, they feel like they have to give their kids undivided attention every moment they’re not at work. That is a burden that leaves little time for anything else, and it’s not necessary. It turns out that kids thrive on short bursts (five to 20 minutes) of undivided attention (that you consistently provide), rather than large chunks of time that you only occasionally deliver. So put down your phone and give your kids shorts bursts of your total and complete attention. They don’t need a lot of time. They need you to be engaged.

3. Change the nature of how you are spending time with your kids

If you work outside the home, you’ll likely have touch points with your kids around five big transitions in the day. Those points are waking up, getting out the door, reuniting at the end of the day, dinner, and bedtime. My guess is you spend most of that time trying to get them to do something, like putting their shoes or getting them to eat their vegetables.

This can result in lots of friction—and not much getting done. Kids want attention from their parents, and they’re going to get it somehow. Instead of directing, go against your “always-be-productive” instincts and just “be.” Changing the texture of the time you spend, even just 15 minutes—of playing or reading or being silly—is fun and can make all the stuff you have to accomplish, go more smoothly.

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4. Make mindful transitions

Many relationships go off the rails during transitions. How many times have you walked in the door while finishing a phone call or responding to an email? Perhaps you started the day by yelling—Hurry up! Get dressed!—instead of good morning?

Don’t do that. Before crossing any threshold, be sure to set your intention. What do you want to communicate on the other side of that door? Use the first few moments of each reconnection point with your kids to show them how happy you are to see them. Enter their world by asking how they slept, how their day was, what they found exciting, funny, or challenging that day.

As for Jocelyn, she took these suggestions to heart and implemented them into her evening routine. Stepping off the gas pedal made her nervous, but to her great surprise, it worked. Nina responded like a flower to water. The additional downtime deepened their connection with each other, and it didn’t undermine Jocelyn’s efforts to run a tight ship.

Being a working parent is stressful, and as Elizabeth Alterman previously wrote for The Muse, “managing it all can leave you feeling like you’re straddling a great divide.” Just remember, connecting to your child isn’t about checking things off a list. It’s about taking a step back once in a while and appreciating every moment—big or small—that you and your children have together.


Julie Morgenstern is an organizational consultant and author of Time To Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.

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