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Monday, September 7, 2015

Quality Time–What Exactly Is It Anyway?

Children will not only absorb as much parental attention like a sponge, they will aggressively suck it up like a vacuum cleaner.  They will use every attachment provided – crevice tool, hair brush, stiff bristle pick-up, soft groom feature, and mini-turbine – to poke, prod, insert and power suck every last bit of playtime, horseplay, cuddling, storytelling, and silly games out of their mothers and fathers.  If it were up to them, they would never be alone.

Dyson vaccum cleaner

           Dyson Vacuum Cleaner

Therein lies the dilemma of quality time. Parents who had a life before children and who want to continue it afterwards have invented the concept of ‘Quality Time’ – spending as little time as possible with their children, but making it count. Because these parents must cram a lot into a little, play must be intensive.

A young professional friend of mine, torn between a very demanding but promising job and the needs of her young son, had developed a list of quality time priorities based on her child’s interests and abilities and her own personal preferences.  Reading, of course, was at the top of the list, and Chutes-and-Ladders and other childish games at the bottom. In between were ‘active play’, ‘fun-in-the-kitchen’, Legos, and ‘Math Concepts for Children’.  This last was a game meant to teach basic logical principles.  ‘What is a Hole?’, for example, was a chapter on basic metaphysics – when was a thing a thing.  Was a cutout hole the same as a deep one, etc.

Image result for images lego

Sarah had very little time to spend with Jason during the week, so these intensive play sessions took place on Sunday.  Saturday was impossible because of errands, house-cleaning, bills, and finances; but Sunday was free and open. She of course was inquisitive and responsive to her son on the way to and from daycare; but both mother and child were tired and irritable after a long day, and not much of Sarah’s informal but structured interactive program for the car ever got done.

The problem, as every parent knows, is that the hours that parents set aside for quality time rarely coincide with the few periods of calm receptiveness of their children.  For some reason Jason was at his pissiest on Sunday morning.  Not only was his circadian clock was set differently than his mother’s, but he was a bad sleeper.  He tossed and turned like a troubled adult, had bad dreams and night sweats, and woke up most mornings enervated and angry. While she could drop this annoying and scratchy child off at daycare on weekday mornings and be done with him, she had to deal with him come hell or high water on Sunday mornings.

“I don’t want to”, said Jason when Sarah got out the metaphysical game. “It’s stupid. I want to watch TV”.

Sarah had considered getting rid of the television which would have been a lot easier than fighting with her son every Sunday morning, but even though on principle she and her husband had only one television ‘to watch the news’, neither one wanted to do without it. “You can watch as much as you want after we’re through playing”, said Sarah; but of course Jason, seeing a chink in the parental armor and a strategic advantage to arguing, said, “No.  I want to watch it now”, and began to throw  Lego pieces around the room.  He wasn’t stupid.  He realized that his mother wanted this play time far more than he did, and he could exact just about anything if he agreed.

Occasionally Sarah would hit on something that kept Jason’s interest.  Dinosaurs, of course, were always a hit with young boys; but Jason only wanted to enact brutal scenes of tyrannosaurus kills.  He roared and growled as he positioned T-Rex over diplodocus or stegosaurus and imitated what he imagined would be the savage ripping of throats and bowels.  He had no interest whatsoever in his mother’s milder exposition of events – the complementarity of animals and nature, extinction, and evolution.

Image result for images dinosaur figures for boys


In other words, these Sunday super-events were more often than not a total failure.  Mother and son always ended up in a standoff, both unhappy, unsatisfied and pissed.

Dinner was the one time of the day when the family was together.  She and her husband had grown up in a time when family meals were the center of daily life; and she warmly remembered her mother’s pot roast and her father’s recounting his day at the office. Long before she had Jason, Sarah had long intended to continue this important family tradition.

Image result for image norman rockwell family dinner

   Norman Rockwell, ‘Freedom from Want’

Unfortunately modern times made these idyllic dinners impossible.  Both Sarah and her husband had a lot to get off their chests, and since both retired to their studies after dinner, mealtime was the only opportunity to talk together. Although both spouses had important and remunerative jobs, they labored under bad bosses; so if toiling under the yoke of billable hours and bottom lines wasn’t enough, they both had to put up with insult, arrogance, and sarcasm.

“I played with Bobby Harris today”, said Jason in one of the few times he initiated a discussion civilly.  Ordinarily both parents would have jumped at this opportunity for some quality discussion with their son; but this time the insults they both had suffered at work were simply too much. “Wait a minute, sweetie”, Sarah said to her son. “Daddy and I are talking.”

So Jason predictably mashed his peas into a lump, scraped his meat onto the floor, and said, “I’m not hungry.” He knew that this would get his parents attention. Sarah was very serious about child nutrition, and had studied up on the pros and cons of various types of diets – vegan, vegetarian, ovo-lactarianism, low-fat, low-carb, etc. – and wanted very much to get her child off on the right nutritional foot.  Of course Jason, the attention-sucking vacuum cleaner that he was, knew exactly what buttons to push to turn his mother away from everyone else and towards him.  “I’m not hungry” was Jason’s challenge, the gauntlet thrown down. “So do something about it”.

Image result for images a balanced diet

Not only was the interactive time between Sarah and her husband ruined, there was no hope of any meaningful chit-chat with her son.

“Why were my family dinners such happy ones?”, Sarah wondered; and of course the answer was obvious.  Her mother never worked.  Dinner was prepared leisurely and without pressure.  She had no crises to deal with during the long day, and she was eager for time with her daughter and husband.  When she was Jason’s age Sarah had long, uninterrupted, but peaceful hours with her mother.  She helped her in the kitchen, took walks with her in the park, or watched daytime television with her in the den.  They were a pair, and a well-matched one.

This revelation, true as it might have been, was of no help.  Times had changed since her childhood, and there was no way she was going to quit her job.  She had spent time, energy, and tens of thousands of dollars on a first-class education; had worked hard and diligently and was now being considered for partner; and she was not about to throw all that away. She knew better than to even to suggest that her husband quit or even pare down his time, for he was even more ambitious than she was.

Sarah was at her wits’ end.  Nothing had turned out the way she had intended it.  She hated her son for being such a pain-in-the-ass; and she hated her husband for his indifference to her quandary and emotional strain. Married life wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Every man has got a breaking point”, the general said to Willard before giving him his assignment to go upriver to kill Kurtz. ”You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously, he has gone insane.”

Image result for images walter kurtz apocalypse now

           ‘Apocalypse Now” www.sites.psu.edu

Sarah Mills had reached her breaking point, but like most people didn’t fly off the handle or go berserk.  “Fuck it” might have been a bit too harsh of a way to characterize her change in attitude; but there was an element of letting off steam in it.  It felt good to finally admit that she didn’t care that much. Hundreds of millions of children in the world not only have no quality time with their parents but no time at all.  They are too busy gathering wood, tending goats, or weeding the garden. Children are valued for what they are not what they will become.  A pail of water fetched from a well two miles away is worth far more than aspiration or hope.

Image result for image african children tending the herd


If American children had to work, Sarah reasoned, they wouldn’t be so demanding, so spoiled, and such irritants.  Both parents and children would be occupied in tasks that contributed to family welfare.  Respect, discipline, and obedience would be inherent rather than taught. Our expectations are valued more than making a living.

In 21st century America there is no real reason to have children, Sarah reflected. Parents invest thousand of dollars and many hours of time for what? Children don’t help with the mortgage and rarely with weeding the garden. Children are one bad investment – thousands in cost, zero in benefit.

Once again, Sarah was being too hard on herself. Children are sweet, and theirs are the only moments of pure innocence that adults will ever experience. That should be payoff enough.

In any case things turned around at the very moment when Sarah Mills gave a big sigh of relief. It wasn’t really that important at all.  A little noodge and support here and there, but no longer was she going to held in bondage by her son. The kid was on his own.

This exaggerated vision was essential to the righting of her ship. No mother could suddenly write off her offspring and throw them to the wolves.  She would always be an attentive and caring parent.  She just stopped being dutiful, guilty, and slavish.

Jason, not an unintelligent boy, realized this immediately and knew that his terror tactics would no longer work. Without a word being said or a new contract being signed, mother and child worked together far more peacefully, harmoniously, and productively.

It is neither a matter of quality time or total time spent with children. It is only what the market will bear. An adjustment to current variables, constraints, and givens. Playing the cards you are dealt. Eating the food set in front of you.

The story ends well.  Sarah’s marriage remained intact.  She and her husband both made partner; and Jason went to Harvard. “We could have saved ourselves a lot of grief”, Sarah said to her husband many years later.

“Maybe”, he said, “but how were we to know?”

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