by Wendy Helfenbaum
There’s an old saying that when it comes to parenting children, the days are long but the years are short. But doesn’t it seem sometimes that children are like puppies—with no concept of time whatsoever? Many of us are guilty of expecting adult-style productivity from our kids, yet we don’t sit down and teach them what time is or how to figure out how long it takes to do their homework.
“Time is a tricky concept—even for us adults, some days seem to drag on for a year and others fly by in a minute,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Princeton, New Jersey-based psychologist and co-author of Smart Parenting For Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). “However, understanding time is a critical skill for children because it enables planning.”
Dr. Kennedy-Moore notes that your child’s sense of time develops in stages.
“Two- and 3-year-olds enjoy the predictability of routines, but live mostly in the present; their sense of time involves mainly ‘now or not now,’ and they have limited ability to wait,” she explains.
“Five- and 6-year-olds have a clearer understanding of past, present, and future. They can anticipate happy events and have some grasp of ‘next week’ versus ‘tomorrow.’
"Seven- to 10-year-olds have the arithmetic skills necessary to use clocks and calendars.”
Talking to your children about time every day as you go about your regular activities enables them to absorb important concepts, adds Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Here are a few ways you can help your kids understand time and manage it effectively:
• What comes next? Children need to become aware of time passing. To develop this skill, try establishing predictable routines like reading bedtime stories or let kids know which days they have extra-curricular activities. Encourage older children to keep track of family members’ birthdays on a calendar or count down the days to a family vacation, suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
• What happened before? This skill helps children recall experiences and make future predictions, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “With a young child you might say, ‘Remember the last time Maggie babysat you? You played tea party!’ Older children have a growing sense of personal identity; talk about how they overcame past challenges, such as how they learned to ride a bike.”
• How long? Figuring out how long things will take is a difficult but essential skill, notes Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Once your child knows how to count, you can use this is a way to mark time. With two siblings and one toy, you could say, ‘Count to 30, then it’s Jeremy’s turn,’” she says. Point out how many minutes it takes to walk to school with your child each day, or discuss how long their favorite TV show is. Use a stopwatch or kitchen timer and time them while they make their bed or get dressed, for example.
• Which first? This time concept relates to priorities. “With younger children, you’ll be establishing most of these: ‘Wash your hands before snack.’ ‘Pick up the toys before we go out,’” explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Tweens and teens will sometimes need help choosing a long-term benefit over a short-term gain, “but they can be involved in thinking about how they spend their time. Would they rather spend 20 minutes complaining about an assignment or get it done quickly? How much time do they want with no scheduled activities?”
Getting her 6-year-old son to understand how long things took to do proved very difficult for Ariele Wildwind. “He averaged seven hours of homework per week and writing was a real challenge. He cried a lot, and we struggled to help him,” recalls Wildwind, a mother of two who lives in Santa Clara, California.
Then Wildwind, who is a teacher, showed her son how to plan his work so that it got done in manageable chunks of time.
“We broke the writing up into ‘Tuesday Tidbits’, (where we) started with an outline, ‘Wednesday Wrap-It-Up,’ where he finished his writing, and finally ‘Thursday Tidy-Up,’ where he could work on spelling and penmanship. This really made the entire process so much easier,” she says.
“I also find that when transitioning—from one task to another, from school to home, or from home to activities—kids need help,” she adds. “They might need to be given a five-minute warning. They might also enjoy having their weekly schedule printed out and posted on the fridge or in their room, and it can have times with analog clocks, so that time can be taught while you’re looking at the schedule.”
Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal, Canada-based freelance writer, television producer and time-obsessed mother whose son thinks five minutes is an eternity.
©Photo by Aleksandr Geleznov | Dreamstime.com