Parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do—and I once thru-hiked a 260+ mile trail that was perpetually undermarked. Lost in the woods in a thunderstorm while you’re dripping wet? Hard, but not as hard as being a parent.
Trying to raise three kids to be kind but committed, emotionally aware but also tough, faith-filled but not Pharisees is a challenge. The best advice I’ve ever gotten—presence always beats perfection. I get that. But in our fast-paced, overstimulated, get Billy to soccer practice, and Susie has a bake sale tomorrow world—getting actual face time with your offspring is harder than ever.
I used to be a science teacher, and old habits dying hard, I decided to try an experiment: I’d practice being present by spending intentional time with at least one of my kids every day for a month. TL;DR—it was much harder than I imagined, and for the days I succeeded, I had just as many failures.
To be honest, at the end of the month, I was a little beat up about it. Then I remembered perfection wasn’t the goal in the first place. Presence was. The intentional moments I had with my kids were all over the map—from working puzzles to playing outside, from watching movies to doing art—but they were meaningful. And honestly, I would have had fewer of them without the intentionality of this experiment.
When I look at the ancient wisdom of the Bible, I find a similar message: that parent is less something we are and more something we do. The scriptures teach that parents are to “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). Ever trained for an athletic event? It’s not a passive pursuit. It takes discipline, persistence, and daily re-engagement to reach your goal.
Later, we find instruction to “Bring (children) up in the discipline and instruction of the LORD” (Ephesians 6:4). The word bring up in that passage means to nourish or feed. It’s an active and ongoing pursuit that requires presence. In fact, Jesus’ last promise to His followers before leaving earth, men and women he had been nourishing for years, was one of presence. “Behold,” He said, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
No matter where you are on the parenting spectrum, there’s hope. We’re all looking for creative ideas on how to be more present with our kids. Here are six lessons I picked up from my 30-day experiment and how I’m using this wisdom to be a better parent today than I was yesterday.
BE PRESENT IN WHAT THEY LOVE The easiest way to spend time with your kids is to do something they love. Listen, this ain’t always easy. After a very active day at work, the last thing I want to do is jump on the trampoline. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I just want to sit down and doze off on the couch for a minute. What do my kids want? The Tickle Monster to chase them around the trampoline. So, Tickle Monster it is.
No matter what age your kids are, they love something you can use to engage them—be it comic books or board games, Sci-Fi movies, or fingerpainting. If that’s something you don’t already love, even better. Your intentional choice to engage in something solely because they love it will speak volumes to them about their worth. Best of all? It gives you precious time to just be with them. Learn to engage in something they love, and you’ll multiply your presence in their life.
INVITE THEM INTO WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE TO DO About midway through my experiment, we got two sets of new bunk beds for our kids. It was my job to put them together. That first bunk bed took hours to complete (curse you, IKEA instruction manuals). I saw the hours to spend time with my kids ticking away, and I hadn’t even opened box number two. That’s when I got an idea—ask my kids to help.
The look on their faces was sheer delight. They felt entrusted with an important task and got to “help” me do something lasting. Plus, they got to play with my bag of tools, which is their favorite thing to do anyway. Did they actually assist? Not in the least. I pretty much still put the bed together myself. But I did set them up to turn some screws, grab some pieces of wood, and turn the pages of the instruction manual. Their help wasn’t the bottom line. It was an excuse to spend time together. And it worked.
The biggest barrier I find to ongoing presence with my kids is the list of things I feel like I need to get done every day—boring adulting stuff like laundry and dishes, planting the garden, and mowing the grass. Whenever I can find creative ways to involve my kids (even if they aren’t actually “helping,”) it’s a win. It’s time I already have to give, I might as well use it to get more face time with them.
SACRIFICE SOMETHING That being said, sometimes the best thing to do is drop your adult expectations around what needs to get done. When it comes to doing the dishes before bedtime or spending a few moments with my kids, I need to recognize which of those is the more valuable (hint: it’s the one with the scraped-up knees).
Still, this is hard for me. Somehow along the way, I’ve picked up the lesson that fun doesn’t happen until the work is complete. Here’s the low-down, though: parenting work is never done. As soon as you clean the bathroom, someone tramps in with muddy shoes. As soon as the laundry is folded, a new pile magically appears to take its place. There will always be dirty dishes because people have the bad habit of wanting to eat (at least) three times a day.
You can’t obviously forgo all your “chores” in the name of watching more Disney+ together. Instead, I’m becoming more aware that I actually have a choice. On most of the days when I missed intentional time with my kids, it’s because I let the pressures of adult life push the little ones to the side. It’s because I had to finish some yard work, and then make dinner, and then do the dishes, and then run the bath, and then it was bed. In reality, the kids would have loved to help in the yard, the dishes could have waited, and they could probably go one more night without a bath.
Take control of your time, and point it toward the most important thing—even if you have to sacrifice some of your precious productivity.
CAPITALIZE ON LITTLE MOMENTS I started this experiment with the mistaken belief that I’d be spending at least an hour every day doing whatever my kids wanted to do. But many times, the most profound moments were the little ones. The fifteen minutes we worked on a Harry Potter puzzle together; the ten-minute chat while we drove to the doctor’s office; the two-song dance party after dinner.
Presence doesn’t always mean a grand gesture or a huge amount of dedicated time. Little moments, especially when strung together, add up to huge dividends. So look for them. Put your phone away during dinner, and you’ll find them. Turn down NPR in the car, and suddenly there’s time to talk. Embrace your spontaneous side (it’s still in there), and you’ll see your kids come alive.
PLAN BIG ONES One of my failure days, in hindsight, wasn’t actually a failure at all. My wife and I spent an entire day planning a getaway for our family. Yes, in the moment, it wasn’t great that it took us multiple hours to plan out and book the trip—or that our kids watched so much TV that day. But in the end, the investment of that time is going to bloom into an unforgettable week for us all. So while you capitalize on the little moments, take time to plan big things. Our trip? It’s to the beach. Why? Our kids love the sand and the waves (it doesn’t hurt that my wife and I like it too). We’re planning to surprise them with the trip—bags packed, car gassed up, hop-in-and-go. It’s going to blow their minds, and I can’t wait for the big reveal.
Grab the little moments that come your way—but remember that time and money spent on big adventures is time and money well spent.
RITUALIZE IT Every night, for the past year, as our kids get into bed, I crack open a book and read for a few minutes. We’ve covered all the Narnia series. We’ve done a few from Harry Potter. We’ve read classics like The Secret Garden and mysteries like Nancy Drew. Even with the intentional time I was able to give my kids during my experiment, nothing beats the ritual of reading at night time. It’s what they look forward to the most.
If something is important, it’ll find its way into your calendar and daily routine. Make spending time with your kids a ritual, and get it on the calendar in regular and repeatable patterns—something as simple as Friday Night Pizza or Tuesday night TV time will become the thing you (and they) look forward to the most.
Parenting is hard, but finding time to spend with your kids doesn’t have to be. Pick one of these face time hacks and work it this week. See how it does for you, and then tweak it to your family’s specific make-up or situation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a single-parent or a two-parent home, living behind a white picket fence or in a high-rise apartment, the one thing your kids need most of all is you. So give it to them. The amazing thing is, you’ll get even more out of it than they do. Presence beats perfection every single time.