With four kids in our one family, as a dad I often felt like I was being pulled in four different directions at the same time. The kids are older now and three of them are on their own, but back when they were little, managing this even slightly well seemed almost impossible, like trying out for some kind of superhero status—The Amazing Flex-O-Dad.
You probably know how it goes. Somebody needs to be carpooled somewhere, and somebody else has a ballgame at seven. This one is calling me, and that one looks like she needs to talk. Plus a couple of them have been spending too much time at the computer lately, and there are friendship concerns and school issues and countless other things to think about.
Because I love each of my kids and I want them all to know they’re loved, I tried to be there for them in the various areas of their lives. But because there are four of them, on any given minute of any given day, I found I was dividing things up: a quarter of my fathering energy and a quarter of my fathering attention—just a quarter of Dad—for each child.
And my wife Jane, as talented as she is, had to share her mothering among four children too. So I guess you could argue that when it comes to parental time and attention, a best-case scenario for our kids is a quarter of Mom and a quarter of Dad each, or half a parent total.
That’s how it goes in family, though. After all, it takes just two children to split the parents’ attention, and any additions after that have you outnumbered completely; even if parenting was all you did all day long, there’d still be no way to offer everything to everybody.
Acknowledging this in our own home, my wife and I came up with one particular strategy that made a big difference for our kids: we’ve made one-on-one time with them a priority.
We’ve observed that if we interact with our kids only when other siblings are around, then they’re all more likely to “rank” themselves in the family. They compare themselves with each other, competing for the best personality, the most talents, the highest grades, you name it. Insecurities are more likely, and rivalry often takes over.
So we’d set aside an evening or an afternoon—sometimes just an hour when we had one to spare—and spend that time with just one of the kids. I’d go shopping with one of my daughters, Jane would cook dinner with one of our sons, or we’d just hop in the car with a kid, drive somewhere together, and talk.
During these one-on-ones, Jane and I did our best to encourage the kids, affirming their gifts and the unique qualities they bring to our family. We’d tell them that we love them. We praise their hard work and successes.
We’d also take care of a little business, giving the kids a chance to ask questions that might be awkward or embarrassing. And we’d catch up on what’s going on in their life—their friendships, their schoolwork, their beliefs, and their perspectives.
By the end of even a short one-on-one, it’s amazing to see how much a kid can change. They’ve had their parent’s undivided attention, and it means a lot to them. The transformation afterward is incredible—trust me, you can’t replicate it with a brother or sister around.
In my life as a dad, watching something like that is worth all the extra time and effort I can put into it. To have opportunities to see all four of my kids, each of them feeling singled out and special, makes me really glad my wife and I are so outnumbered.