The other day, Kade found an instructional video on YouTube on how to make a small gift box out of 21 playing cards. He asked me to help him make it (playing cards are challenging to fold with any degree of precision), which was actually pretty simple and took a bit more than ten minutes or so. Now pretty as it is, it's not the most sturdy thing in the world, so I have spent an additional five minutes or so refining or repairing it. So all in all I have perhaps spent a quarter of an hour making the box.
The first day, we played with it for ten minutes.
The second day, we played with it for 20 minutes.
Last night, we played with it for half an hour, as he and I took turns putting items inside the box and asking the other person to guess what was inside. He happens to be quite good at this game, by the way.
It's easy, perhaps even reflexive, for me to look at the time invested in making the box (15 minutes) and the time spent playing with the box (one hour) and determine that it was time well spent; after all, we played with it for four times as long as it took to make it, which is a 400% return on invested capital. Not bad, not bad at all. Time is a very precious resource. We never really know how much we will have, but we are raised from a very early age to use it wisely and to never waste it. So when we spend time, we might to be sure we are getting something out of it. For example, when we spend time at work, we want to be sure we are paid adequately to compensate us for our loss of time. When we spend time at the gym, we want to ensure that our bodies will gain some sort of benefit that corresponds to the amount of time we have worked out. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.
The funny thing about investing time, though, is that we never can be truly certain of the outcome. Kade may play with this box every hour of every day for eternity, but he could just as easily never, EVER play with it again. If he plays with it every day, then my rate of return on my time invested goes up; if he never plays with it again, then it will stay at 400% forever. But this habit of looking at time as an investment, with required rates of return in order to make our time spent worthwhile, is of very little concern to children. It's not that they don't get the concept of time as a resource, because they do; if you don't believe me, ask a ten year old to wait with you at the DMV some time. No the reason they don't care about time as an investment is because they view the equation differently. To them, the benefit of taking 15 minutes to make a box has noting to do with how long they play with it.
The benefit is the 15 minutes they get to spend with you. Even if the box never worked, broke, got stepped on, was lost, or simply ignored forever is decidedly unimportant to them. What is important is that they asked you do something, and you said "yes" and then took the time to do it. To them, your time spent with them is not time invested, it is merely time connected.
Paradoxically, this time you spend - freely and joyfully given, with no attachment to outcome or focus on rate of return - can yield exceptional returns in quantities that are beyond measurement and in ways impossible to foresee. Why?
Because when you give the gift of your time without expectation, they will ask for more. And the best gift we can get from our children is the invitation to spend time again.