The Mister and I just had a romantic dinner in the basement, served by two little girls. The main course was Fisher Price peas and pizza, real water from a sturdy, plastic teapot and Cheez-Its. We were entertained by music playing on daddy’s cell phone and the evening ended with a rousing rendition of The Village People’s “YMCA”. Yes of course we danced with the waitresses.
Planning doesn’t create spontaneous family moments like these; so often these special moments just ‘happen’, when availability meets creativity and openness. Even if we were to have tried to design this quality evening, likely it wouldn’t have come off like the spontaneous one did. “Mommy! Daddy! Come downstairs! We have a surprise!” interjected itself into my husband’s and my evening like an unexpected kiss. Planning is all fine and dandy but you simply can’t blueprint everything in real life.
Unprompted, sweet, relationship-building moments that occur from spending a quantity amount of time with those we love form the basis of daily family life. We often hear the phrase “quality time” tossed about, as though it were separate from quantity time, and something to be aspired to independently from abundant hours, days and weeks. In reality, however, quantity time trumps the often aimed-for quality time any day, for ironically when opportunities are plentiful quality time appears, and takes care of itself.
One of the best gifts Catholic (or any) parents can offer their children is the generous giving of their time. In forty years, it won’t matter to a child that his dad earned more than enough to purchase a huge entertainment center for the basement if by doing so it meant his father’s absence in working weekends, evenings and other spare moments. The extra vacation, boat or address in a premier neighborhood means less to a child than backyard ball tosses with Dad on a regular basis or the daily relaxed interaction with a present and loving Mom.
Many parents must work long hours to provide necessities for their families. They are to be admired. But there is a prevalent notion in modern society that certain things are necessities when in truth they are not. We must distinguish between the two. Some parents fall into the trap of thinking their children need more things than they really do: electronics gadgets, the latest and greatest toy or in-style clothing. The truth is, so long as a child’s basic needs are met, he is generally happy and will thrive. Luxuries like 4-H membership, swim team involvement, baseball or dance class can be good and enriching, for sure, helping a child develop his or her particular talents, but their importance is significantly less than simple one-on-one attention that a parent offers to his child. As we all know, true happiness and the ability to become one’s best possible self comes from nurturing, love and attention, not stuff, even good stuff.
Giving time is a challenge for sure. Beds must be made. Meals must be cooked. Clothes must be folded and clutter put away. Money must be earned to provide basic needs. But nothing is more important than scooping up the little one tugging at your sleeve, hugging her and showing her the bird perched out the window, and listening to the expressions of the little thoughts on her mind.. When children arrive home from school one of the parents needs to be there, waiting, ready for that quality time that might pop up anywhere, at any moment. Nothing says love like our presence.
Yesterday, I was reading a science book about earthworms with my 8-year-old daughter. My girl begged to put on our boots and go into the garden to dig. She wanted to find worms to put in a glass jar and observe. I didn’t want to go. I was comfortable. I had a schedule. It was wet and icky outside. I am not a fan of worms. But I looked at my daughter, imagining the day she’ll leave for college. I wanted to give her another memory and another token of my love in this fast changing life of ours. I said ‘yes.’ We sloshed through the mud surrounded by misty air and the smell of the spring earth. My daughter tried to coax the worms, “Come on little guy” as she poked gently with a stick. We giggled. We sang a few songs. Quality emerged from quantity. Again.
We parents give our children many gifts. We work hard to provide safe homes for them. Good meals for them. Warm clothes and learning experiences. This is how we demonstrate unselfish love to our children. In our parental caring, however, we should remember: the gift of our time and ourselves is actually the most thoughtful and best gift of all.
Originally appeared in Today’s Catholic News and Integrated Catholic Life, May 2013