The first time I heard the expression “one-on-one time,” I was living in California working on my PhD. My friend and mentor, psychologist Harold Bessell, was holding seminars for parents on raising emotionally mature kids. I was his workshop organizer and partner at the time, and as such, sat in on all the events. I remember thinking, I’m only 24 without an ounce of interest in ever having kids. Still, I listened to everything Bessell had to say, tucking into my memory his every word.
Of all the techniques Bessell espoused, parents seemed to respond best to one-on-ones. Bessell encouraged parents to spend 10 minutes a day, sitting with each child, doing what the child wanted to do. Nine minutes of that time was to be spent purely giving support in the form of attention, acceptance, approval, and affection. The last minute was the parent’s chance to ask for something in return…being nicer to your little brother, helping Mommy set the table, or refraining from whining when things don’t go your way. It was during those “magic meetings,” as Bessell fondly called them, that emotional maturity developed day by day.
He also stressed how powerful one-on-one time was for building deep bonds between parents and children. “Forget about taking the whole family to Disneyland,” he’d say. “Take one child at a time. They’ll remember it forever.” Easy for you, living in San Diego, I’d think. How can people from Iowa afford to do that? I knew, of course, he was simply making a point.
Despite my disinterest in having children at the age of 24, I succumbed to the temptation five years later. But who would have guessed the first would be followed by four more? Fortunately, Bessell’s words seeped back into my mind. I began looking for ways to spend one-on-ones with my kids, turning every little errand into a dad/kid adventure. “Emily! Want to go with me to the Post Office?” “Yeah!” she’d say coat on in a flash. “Can I go too?” Summer would ask. “Nope,” I’d answer. “It’s Emily’s turn this time. But your turn is next!” My kids were always satisfied by the fairness of that, taking turns, trusting I wouldn’t forget and that I’d keep my promises, knowing that when it was their turn, they’d get to have me all to themselves.
When my oldest daughter, Natalie, turned 13, I had an occasion to travel to New Orleans and asked if she’d like to come along. We’d already traveled to Disney World together, just the two of us, as Bessell had suggested. New Orleans seemed a great follow-up adventure. I looked younger than my age by a good ten years and Natalie easily passed for a girl of 18. We played along, laughing our heads off later, when people thanked us for choosing New Orleans to spend our honeymoon! In addition to laughing, we took in parades, explored the town, and enjoyed talking for hours.
Upon our return—that fairness thing!—I told my kids I wanted to make an announcement. “Each time one of you turns 13, we’ll take a trip together—just you and me. You choose a place you want to go, as long as it’s in the lower 48 States.” Despite their having years to wait, I could tell by their expressions, anticipation had already set in.
Rider was next and immediately challenged the rules. For him, the US was just too confining. What he really wanted to do was visit another country. So I suggested my old haunt, San Diego. In no time we found ourselves crossing the border, shopping in lush, brightly tiled plazas, and eating Mexican food for which we both had a passion, while serenaded by Mariachi bands.
Summer was all about musical theater. When she turned 13, Broadway beckoned. We drove to New York, singing there and back, my apologies to Ella, Billie, and Frank. We picked off five shows on the Great White Way, discovering we shared a favorite: Into the Woods. We then ran into composer, Michelle LeGrande, who graciously took time to pose for a quick pic.
Emily, a California girl from the day she was born, couldn’t wait to get there when she reached 13. What a sight—me in a wetsuit, forever bobbing in the surf, while Emily caught a wave the first time she tried! From there we went to Disneyland—Bessell was right—where we sailed with the Pirates about twenty-five times and Emily soared over California—I was too scared.
Thirteen was too long for Tanner to wait. At 11, he was ready to head to the Everglades, hoping to spy on alligators and snakes. He also asked if he could take a friend. That gave me pause, but I soon gave in, learning one-on-twos can also be fun. Tanner, Marco, and I avoided being eaten. Instead, it was us who ate everything in sight, laughing hysterically when nothing was funny.
It’s a wonderful thing to gather as a family, sharing meals, telling stories, basking in the energy of the entire tribe. But there’s simply no substitute for time spent alone between a parent and a child who were together from the start.