When my kids were toddlers, family time came with incessant sleeve-tugging, book-read-aloud-begging, dispute-mediation, and urgent calls to help put together this puzzle or untangle that knot. There was always something (or someone) that needed to be wiped, fixed, or consoled. Even as young children, my kids needed my unrelenting attention; whether because they were hurting or just wanted to be close to a parent, they needed me.
I remember needing breaks from them. Sometimes, especially coming home from a full day of teaching, I was like the father in the movie Marley and Me when he pulls into the driveway and closes his eyes for a rest before going into the house. Which is to say, I wanted to be with my kids, but I needed to steal a minute of rest and I was craving some time alone.
Now that my children are 16 and 18 years old, the ways they need me have changed.
My son forwards me an article about our favorite basketball team. He texts to ask if he can stay out late to watch a movie. My daughter calls to ask if it’s okay to miss dinner to be with a friend. If I’m lucky, she sends a photo of a meal she and the friend made.
I know it’s healthy for teenagers to want to spend more time with their peers, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not done parenting and I want to keep our bonds strong.
In the summer, we vacation together at the beach. But in the school year, our family time is more intermittent and brief. On Friday nights, we get take-out and eat together before they are off and running with friends. Occasionally, on winter evenings, we’ll gather at the kitchen counter to talk about the impending snowstorm and take bets about whether or not school will be canceled in the morning. This family time is not enough for me.
I make plans to have one-on-one time with each kid.
Spending time with busy teens means being strategic and flexible.
My daughter and I are both runners and I found that if I shift my early morning routine to accommodate her sleeping in late on Saturdays, we can run together.
I cherish the miles running and bonding with my daughter. She tells me everything that’s on her mind: school, friends, work, and her ever-shifting post-high school plans. I get to listen, then when she asks questions, she waits for me to speak. There are rarely stretches of silence; but when they happen, I’m still content.
Bonding with my son is a bit trickier. He, like his mom, appreciates schedules and knowing what will happen at each moment of the day. His weekends and free time are packed with workouts, sporting events, and soccer training. There seems to be no time for me. But I do have an inroad. My son and I both love sports, and I’ve been able to use that as a way to connect.
When the Eagles made their Super Bowl run this year, we watched every game together. I muted the TV during the commercials, so we had time to chat. He’s not a talker in the same way my daughter is, so I have to move the conversation along. But, once I get him going, he talks about reaching his athletic and academic goals, which then leads to conversations about summer plans, life after high school, and jobs. He’s digging into ideas of what sustains him and what kind of work will bring him long-term happiness.
I’ll gladly sacrifice sleep and adjust my routines if it means strengthening our father-son and father-daughter bonds.
Finding one-on-one time with my teens isn’t something I can always plan for — sometimes I just have to steal it. Typically, my wife and I go to bed early. But because bonding with my teenagers has become a priority for me, I take notice of when I can grab some of their time.
If my son is staying up late, working on homework at the dining room table, I’ll forgo my early bedtime to pull up a chair and chat with him for ten minutes about the upcoming NFL draft. He’s happy to pause on the homework. And if my daughter is in the kitchen getting a snack, I’ll stay up late to ask a few questions that sometimes lead to longer conversations about her day.
These moments are fleeting and precious. Pretty soon, my son needs to get back to his homework, and my daughter has to attend to a text conversation. Still, we’ve connected; and I can go to bed feeling fulfilled.
In six months, my son will be away at college. A year later, my wife and I will be empty-nesters. In the meantime, I will continue to adapt, scheme, and concoct plans to steal moments with each of my teens.