Whose Time Is It Anyway?

For parents of preteen and teenage kids, one of the never-ending battles seems to be about time.  Although many kids feel that they are old enough to dictate their own time, many adults feel a little differently.  We put limits on how much TV they can watch, when exactly homework has to be done, when they need to go to sleep, and so on.  At some point, however, we need to be able to loosen the reigns and let children start to take some control over their own time management.  After all, if we are always organizing for them, how will they learn the necessary skills for later in life?

This transition is often met with strife.  It can be because parents put too much on their child at once and then get angry when the child, having had no experience of time management, doesn’t do it as best as he or she could.  Or the parents put too little on their child and the child gets frustrated and rebels.  What’s a parent to do?

Step 1: Talk to Your Child

If your child is already complaining, you’re overdue for a sit down talk about time management.  Even if your child isn’t complaining, you still should start considering ways to teach your child about how to organize and manage their time.   Find out how your child feels about the current situation, lay out your expectations and then find out your child’s expectations.  Chances are you both will end up compromising, but at least you’ll be able to explain where you’re coming from.

Step 2: Lay Out Your Child’s Obligations

Although your child may see his or her time as his or hers exclusively, you need to make your child aware that we all have obligations and responsibilities and he or she is no different.  Point out how many things you’d like to do but don’t do until you’ve met your own obligations, like work, cooking dinner, doing dishes and laundry, cleaning, and so on.

All children preschool age and up should have some responsibilities.  For younger children it may be as simple as cleaning up their own toys (though having them help in the kitchen or other household chores is a good thing to start young).  For older children, they will have homework and their own household responsibilities.  If your child only has homework, I strongly advise you to consider adding some regular household chores.  Could be taking the garbage out, cleaning the bathroom, whatever.

(The only one I admit I struggle with is keeping their room clean.  I had to do it and I want to enforce that with my own children, but as my husband reminds me, it’s their space.  Of course, I won’t go in and clean it myself so if it gets to the point of being too bad or gross, then it’s clean up time – I reserve that right.)

Important to this step is to make these responsibilities clear.  Asking a child to remember it in their head is likely asking for failure.  I recommend a dry erase board somewhere in the house where everyone goes (like the kitchen) and then writing every responsibility down and having the child check it off each day, just like our own to do lists that many adults have.  When they see it’s all checked off, they are good to go.  It’s also a good way for you to keep track of what’s happening.

Step 3: Discuss and Decide on Free Time Rules

Even though children are being given “their” time, it does not need to mean that anything goes.  Their time can occur within the context of the household rules.  For example, you can still have “no more than 1 hour of screen time” as a house rule provided everyone is living by it.  (Living by your own rules is a great way to get your kids to respect them.)  What their time means is that you won’t be bugging them to do something else or overseeing everything they do.  If they want to watch a show, you won’t bother them unless they’re going over some other rule.  Importantly, if they are meeting all their obligations and responsibilities, you’ll want to talk about the household rules and get their input.  Perhaps they want a bit more screen time or freedom to play after school before starting homework.  These are negotiations that will continue as you work this out.  Be flexible.

Step 5: Decide on timing

Does your child have to complete all responsibilities before he or she’s time becomes his or her own (though one may of course add in an hour after school to unwind and play)?  Or as long as everything gets done, is it fair game as to when it happens and you leave that up to the child as well?  These are decisions that every individual family must make.  My personal recommendation is to start with the former until children show they are completing their responsibilities completely and well (no rushed jobs just to get to their time), then you can loosen the reigns some more for them.  Learning to be fully responsible for one’s obligations may be enough for some children that adding time to it is just too difficult for them and setting them up for failure until they’ve mastered the whole responsibility thing.

Step 6: Revisit and Revise

If you see your child struggle, it’s time to go back to a discussion about how time is being managed.  If your child is rushing through homework in order to get to screen time and grades are suffering (or you just see the quality of work go down if you’re checking), something has to change.  If, on the other hand, your child is thriving under more freedom, you can ask if they would like more.  You have to work with your child to make this work, but with some time and effort, you will have a child that not only understands responsibility, but can manage their ever-growing responsibilities quite well.

By Tracy Cassels

January 19, 2015