Time is a Gift that Keeps on Giving

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.


  1. I get it I get it..and I love your writing..It always grabs me, makes me think, makes me smile or cry...sometimes it also makes me feel guilty. So instead of me feeling guilty I am just going to ask you...I play dolls with my soon to be 4 yr old, sometimes twice a day sometimes once a day..This is a very specific game. I can't say anything of my own she tells me what to say or do..On days where I have myself together, I enjoy it. On days where I am tired or a little behind on life-making meals, cleaning dishes just so we can have some, tired from my 20 month old being up for three hrs in the middle of the night...I don't want to play her game. I feel guilty b/c it makes her happy-that is her way of connecting..I am totally authentic with her..I don't make up excuses when she asks, but she will ask me all day long..There is something about this that is really hard and I can't figure it out..I feel like I am getting off topic, but I just wanted to share. Thank you for sharing your life. what was it like when they were younger like 7 4 and 20 mo..I feel like I am too tired to play..

  2. Anonymous - I wonder if part of your issue with this game is that she dictates exactly and only what will happen in the game?

    Maybe it's touching upon some old hurts from your own childhood about not getting to be in charge and/or having to share?...

    And there is the distinct possibility I'm completely off my rocker too :P

  3. Benn there many times, anonymous. I wish I could point to one specific thing I did and say "There, that was the key" - but I can't. I also wish I could say that I always do it right and am perfectly engaged with them at all times, but I really cannot say that either. Of course, I don't think any parent can be 100% perfect ever; we're all just trying to get better, and sometimes we're just trying to make it through the moment.

    My kids have always - ALWAYS - wanted to play with me, which is certainly a wonderful privilege but has, at times, been pretty overwhelming. For about three years, my two youngest were both at a stage where they had a huge list of rules every time we would play: "Daddy, now you do this. No, like this. Good. Now you say this. NO!!!! Yes, that's better." It was completely stifling; not only did I feel like my own creativity was being smothered, but my other child - the one who was not "in charge" in that particular moment - felt exactly the same way. We butted heads a lot, but eventually got to the point where we agreed to play a variety of different games and role plays, taking turns with who gets to make the "rules." The boys agreed that we would rotate the "leadership" role to be as fair as possible. Sometimes, it meant that one boy would not want to play and would move off to do something else, so I made sure to spend some one-on-one time with him later. It was a balancing act with plenty of mistakes along the way, to be sure.

    The other tough aspect was when one of them would want to play a game I had absolutely no interest in playing. The only way we reconciled that - and this is going to sound trite and simplistic - was for me to start to want to play the game. I had to realize that when they wanted to play, my needs and preferences didn't matter. They wanted my time, they needed my time, and they were asking for my time - and eventually, the wants, needs, and asks will go away. When that happens, I thought I would spend the rest of my life kicking myself over not playing those games. In time, I came to enjoy most of the games they played, and once I started playing them a few dropped by the wayside in favor of others I enjoyed more. But nothing lasts forever, except the gifts of ourselves we bestow unconditionally upon our children.

    Hope it gets easier for you -

  4. Hi, I'm Natalie I am the anonymous commenter.

    Reading both your responses gave me more energy,and support. It also took me out of the reality I put myself in. The monkey chatter in my heads tends to take over, the tape just keeps running. Deb, I thought of the same thing, It just isn't clear to what it really is at the core yet. I will let that unfold the way it needs to. I know it is there though. She does trigger me. I feel we are either much a like or total opposites..lol I am betting on much alike.

    Jeff wow that sounds very much like the what happens here. When I do it wrong she gets so upset and yells and cries. Luna 1 1/2 yr old, isn't yet having her own idea about playing-she is happy to just be apart of it right now. I will just stay in the present then stress over what it could look like. It feels like juggling and I fail many times. I know it isn't my job to make them happy people, but to help them navigate through all of life. Though when it comes to meeting their needs it is like my conviction. Then I feel like I let them down. I can't be perfect though I strive for the standard I have in my head. I am really hard on myself-it's almost like the way BellaSky plays her games the way she sees it in her head and it doesn't play out, she gets upset..she wants it perfect...wow..we are very much a like...
    Thank you both very much. I wish I have this kind of support face to face..I need it so bad..This was helpful thank you for connecting with me

  5. Jeff,
    You continue to be an inspiration to me as a person and specifically, at his very moment, a parent. Thank you for your wisdom and a good smack along side the head every once in a while.

    Laura S.