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Special Time: A fun and powerful strategy to help you transform the sibling relationships in your family
Special time

The term Special Time is a bit of a misnomer because you and your child won’t be doing something special. What’s special about Special Time is the fact that your child has your undivided attention. This need for your attention is as strong as the need for food or water.

Special Time helps siblings to like each other better

When parents take on board this new habit of daily one-on-one Special Time, they soon report that it improves cooperation and self-reliance, that it reduces resistance, negative attention-seeking, and minor but exasperating misbehaviour, including whingeing, making a fuss when things don’t go as the child expected – and even sibling squabbles.

If you’re like many of the parents I talk to, you probably feel that when your children are in the same room together there’s a fairly constant undercurrent of competition or rivalry; the tension ebbs and flows but rarely disappears for long. Parents often feel that they’re spending a lot of time and energy trying to manage the bickering between the siblings, and it’s hard to really enjoy the children and relate to each one fully. Special Time is one part of the solution to this stressful and unsatisfactory - and avoidable - state of affairs.

What happens when children don’t get that lovely one-on-one time with each parent that they need and crave and deserve and thrive on?

Typically, children develop annoying behaviours that are guaranteed to get an exasperated parent to pay attention, behaviours such as teasing or being unkind to a sibling, name-calling, telling tales, arguing, grabbing and pushing. Therefore, one of the most effective – and enjoyable - ways to help siblings get on better more of the time is to make sure to build Special Time into each day. Without interruptions from siblings, each child can soak up the delicious undivided attention from the parent. When the sibling rivalry is temporarily on hold, each child is freed up to be their best self. And for siblings who may be in the habit of deliberately or habitually annoying each other, this Special Time alone with one parent is bliss. For a period of time every day they can forget about the competition and rivalry.

Until parents commit to putting this strategy into practice consistently, they often can’t believe how effective Special Time can be at helping to reduce friction between siblings. Frequent, predictable, and labelled Special Time helps each child to feel better about himself, and this helps reduce the resentment and rivalry that children too often feel towards their siblings.

Even siblings who usually get on well together need and deserve and crave time alone with each parent. Children are at their best when they can relax, knowing that for a certain amount of time they don’t need to share (or fight for) your attention.

It’s not just children and teens who love, and benefit from, Special Time. Parents also soon come to enjoy the daily Special Time, to look forward to it, and to be emotionally nourished by it. Special Time helps parents to be more positive, more firm, and more consistent. Parents tell me that they find Special Time so enjoyable, and so beneficial, that they are soon motivated to re-arrange the family schedule to achieve longer Special Times, even during the busiest of times.

Both for the parent and for the child, Special Time is at the same time relaxing and energising. It’s a powerful stress reducer. Building up a bank of shared pleasant memories forges an increasingly strong bond between parent and child. A storehouse of good memories also leads naturally to the gradual development of gratitude and empathy. This accumulation of good memories makes it easier, during any potentially unpleasant or uncomfortable confrontation, for you to remember your child’s good qualities and for your child to remember your good qualities. As a result, everyone stays calmer and more reasonable.

The Special Time guidelines:

  • One parent with one child - doing an activity together that you both enjoy and that:
    - doesn’t cost money
    - isn’t in front of a screen
    - doesn’t involve a food treat
  • Frequent - daily, whenever possible
  • Predictable – you and your child both know when it will happen next
  • Labelled – your child knows you chose to spend this time just with him; it didn’t happen by accident
  • Ideally for a half-hour a day, but even ten minutes a day is hugely beneficial

Who chooses the Special Time activities?

Each day the parent and the child alternate who chooses the Special Time activity. If your child chooses the same activity for weeks at a time and you’re bored rigid by having to play Spiderman or Barbies yet again, don’t complain or suggest a different activity. This is your child’s choice, and it needs to be respected. Use your imagination to make the play more interesting for you; for example, Barbie or Spiderman could become a teacher or an astronaut or could go on a trip to a distant land and encounter strange animals.

And when it’s your turn to choose the activity, don’t choose something that your child would choose. Instead, choose an activity that’s somewhat outside your child’s comfort zone. He’ll probably be willing to do it without too much complaining because he’s doing it with you. Over time, this will expand his repertoire of enjoyable activities, and before too long the activities you introduce him to will be well within his comfort zone.

Special Time with the oldest child

The oldest child in the family will probably always need more frequent Special Time than the younger children. This is because from the moment she was born, until your second came along, your first-born was queen of all she surveyed. She had an exclusive relationship with her parents, and she may continue to miss that, even years after the birth of siblings. That is one reason why the oldest is often the most jealous or competitive. The second and third children in the family are born into a world of children and always had to share their parents, and therefore they accept it as natural. So make sure that your oldest gets daily Special Time, even if at first she acts as if she doesn’t want it or doesn’t need it.

Boys need Special Time with their fathers

Children need Special Time with both parents, but they especially need it with the same-gender parent. For a child, the most important person in her universe is the same-gender parent. This is who she assumes she will grow up to be. When the most important person in her world clearly wants to be with her, enjoys spending time with her, and makes sure to schedule this daily Special Time, it does wonders for a child’s confidence and self-esteem.

But this can be a problem for boys, who often spend far more time with their mothers than with their fathers. Here is my heartfelt plea to dads: I strongly urge you, no matter how busy or stressed you are, to make time for Special Time. If you regularly come home after the children’s bedtime, maybe you and your son can wake up a bit earlier and spend ten minutes together in the morning before school. Take advantage of any extra time you have at weekends and holidays to squeeze in more Special Time. If you travel for work, arrange to communicate with each child daily by phone, Facetime, texting, emails, or good old-fashioned cards.

If, for whatever reason, a boy cannot have frequent Special Time with his father or step-father, I recommend that the mother arrange for a male role model to step in. This could be a relative, a family friend, a neighbour, or even a teacher.

What can you and your child do together during Special Time when it’s your turn to choose the activity?

  • Puzzles, card games, board games like draughts, chess, dominoes, scrabble, and backgammon have all stood the test of time. Generations of children and teens have found these games stimulating and challenging. These games improve concentration, and they teach strategic thinking and problem-solving. Keep the activity fresh by introducing a new game every couple of weeks. You can buy games for a few pounds at any charity shop.
  • Word games (vocabulary, spelling, riddles, etc), maths games, general knowledge quizzes - these are very popular if you don’t make them too challenging to begin with. You don’t need to be very knowledgeable yourself to play these games. You probably know more than you think you know, and you probably know more than your child knows (because we’re talking here about general, not specialised, knowledge).
  • You can both learn and practise something new together.
  • You can decide together to start a collection that you both add to.
  • We tend to assume that fun outings are a family affair. But often children and parents will have more fun (and forge a closer bond) if you split into two groups after you all arrive together at the zoo or museum or fair or sports club. And doing this automatically cuts down on the sibling hassles. It’s important to alternate which child goes with which parent to avoid getting into a rut. (And don’t let your teenager opt out of these family outings. Teenagers need a lot of exposure to sensible adult values, and that can’t happen unless your teen spends a lot of time with the family.)
  • Share your own enthusiasms and pastimes. If it’s been a long time since you got stuck into a hobby, start now. This is important for several reasons. You’ll find that making the time to pursue your own interests (above and beyond paid work, household tasks, and child care) will relax, replenish, and reinvigorate you. You’ll enjoy life more. This will give you, over time, more patience and more determination to become a calmer, friendlier, and more consistent parent. And you’ll be setting an excellent example for your child or teen. He’ll see that being an adult is not only about responsibilities and to-do lists. When he sees you having fun, he’ll become more enthusiastic about growing up. So be willing to force yourself to make time for fun, even if you feel too tired or too stressed. I’m asking you to go have fun for the sake of your children, even if you don’t want to. Whether your preferred pastime is DIY, crafts, stamp-collecting, growing bonsai, playing the guitar, doing crossword puzzles, or browsing through history books, your son or daughter will be interested in sharing it with you during Special Time as long as you:
    • - Let her handle the equipment, instead of just making her watch while you do it
    • - Descriptively Praise her tiny steps in the right direction
    • - Give her easy bits of the task to do
    • - Prepare For Success so that you are confident that she knows what to do and what not to do
    • - Keep your child’s part of the job short, so that she experiences the satisfaction of completion
        before she becomes restless
    • - Make a point of talking with her about your shared interest at other times of the day as well
  • Whenever possible, when you have to run an errand, take one child with you. Even an ordinary trip to the supermarket or bank or post office can be very enjoyable if you focus your attention on being with your child.
  • Involve your child in household tasks. Children often complain about having to do chores. This is partly because they hear adults complaining about chores, and partly because they aren’t required to do chores often enough to accept them as part of daily life. But another reason is that they feel they’re having to give up their precious free time to unload the dishwasher or take out the recycling while everyone else is having fun – or that’s how it seems to them. But that’s no longer a problem when you and your child do chores together. The camaraderie can make the chores enjoyable. And you’ll know that you’re teaching your child or teen important life skills, as well as self-reliance and a more mature work ethic.

How can you shoehorn Special Time into your already busy day?

In an ideal world, it would be lovely if you could spend half an hour a day concentrating on each child separately, doing an activity that you and your child both enjoy. For most families, this can more easily be managed at weekends but not so easily during the week. If you need to, start with smaller chunks of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes a day.

If spending ten minutes a day with each child is simply impossible, the likelihood is that all family members are feeling very stressed. I encourage you to re-examine your family schedule and think about what you can cut out or re-arrange in order to reduce the stress.

One way to make time for Special Time is to stagger the children’s bedtimes so that the youngest is put to bed earliest, then the next oldest, etc. Let’s imagine that you cuddle and read stories with your youngest child from 7:00 to 7:30 pm, while your older children are involved in a quiet winding-down activity, such as reading or drawing or playing a board game, but not being in front of a screen, which tends to rev kids up too close to bedtime. At 7:30 you turn off the light and leave your relaxed, sleepy youngest child to drift off to sleep. You’ll find that Special Time with the older children is much easier to manage when you don’t have to keep an eye on the youngest child because he or she is already in bed. Then from 7:30 to 8:00 pm you play a game with your middle child, read a story or a chapter, and have a cuddle. And then your oldest child gets you all to herself from 8:00 to 8:30 pm. This sort of timetable is do-able in most families.

Here’s another benefit of staggering bedtimes: being allowed to stay up later than the younger siblings shows the older one that there are some perks to being older. This helps to make it worthwhile having to be the more sensible and responsible one.

If your children currently go to bed at the same time, make sure that you stagger their bedtimes by having your youngest go to bed earlier than he does now, not by having the older one go to bed later than he does now. This is very important because most children are not getting as much sleep as they need, and many children are suffering from chronic, mild sleep deprivation.

You can also squeeze in more Special Time whenever you’re waiting with one child while another is doing an after-school activity.

Minimising interruptions from the other siblings

If you find that one child regularly interrupts another child’s Special Time, the solution is to teach and train what I call Independent Play.

The strategy of Independent Play is about requiring the siblings to play by themselves in separate rooms for some time every day before they get on each other’s nerves, not as a consequence or punishment after a fight.

Guide your children into the habit of playing alone every day by requiring it, not by suggesting it. Set aside a certain time every day for each child to play in a separate room, quietly, doing a sedentary activity that’s not in front of a screen. For children who initially hate the idea of playing by themselves when it’s not their choice to, start with a very short period of time, maybe only ten minutes. Over time, they’ll come to enjoy occupying themselves for longer and longer periods of time.

Don’t give your children a choice about whether to have Independent Play or not. It shouldn’t be dependent on whether the siblings are playing nicely together or squabbling. Instead, make it a daily routine.

This is a very useful technique for preventing a lot of (but not all) sibling competitiveness and bickering. In my books I provide a lot more information about the benefits of this technique, and how you can make it a regular habit for your family.

What if your child doesn’t want to have Special Time with you?

Parents often worry about this, especially if their child or teen is hooked on screens. In fact, this problem is very rare, but there are a number of reasons why it might be happening. Start by thinking about why your child may be resistant. Perhaps in the past you’ve lectured and corrected too much, which eats away at self-esteem and willingness. Your child may be trying to stay out of your way to avoid the unpleasantness of being nagged or told off. Or maybe he’s worried that he’ll disappoint you or irritate you. Your child may have been allowed to spend too much time in front of a screen, with the result that real life seems ‘boring’. He may have absorbed the mocking, disrespectful attitude towards adults that is prevalent in so much of the television, films and computer games that children are exposed to, even in what is considered to be age-appropriate programming. He may be avoiding being around a parent who complains a lot, who seems stressed a lot of the time, who’s often in a hurry, who forgets to smile. He may not trust that you really want to be with him; he’s afraid to get his hopes up so he’s testing you to see if you’ll persevere and insist.

In my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’, I explain how parents can reverse and transform this type of negative dynamic with their sons. And of course the strategies I recommend can just as easily be applied to our daughters. In that book I also explain how to turn little bits of time into Special Time moments; how to prepare yourself for Special Time at the end of a busy, stressful day; how to use Special Time to teach and train important values and attitudes; how to help a noisy or very active or aggressive child learn to enjoy quieter, more sedentary Special Time activities. If your child is so immersed in screens that nothing else holds much interest for her, I recommend my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time’, which explains how to loosen the grip of electronics on your family.

If your child or teen is resisting Special Time, this is important: Don’t opt for spending money on him as a way to have Special Time. That sends a message of desperation. Redouble your efforts to Descriptively Praise and Reflectively Listen all day long, avoiding correcting, so that your child starts to realise that you like him and approve of him and understand him.

Whenever you have a moment, sit next to him while he’s doing something he enjoys, and simply start chatting. As long as you resist the urge to ask questions, to lecture or to give advice (all of which are often interpreted by children and teenagers as criticism and disapproval), he will gradually begin to relax and enjoy your undivided attention.

More benefits of Special Time

Special Time helps motivate children and teens to become lifelong learners. The more time a child spends one-to-one with an involved, enthusiastic parent, the more receptive and eager to learn the child will become. Concentration improves, and also emotional stamina. Even if your child feels like giving up when a new skill feels difficult, he’s likely to stay focused for longer in order to be with you and to make you proud.

Special Time is a daily opportunity to expose your child or teen to new ideas, new ways of thinking about things, new ways of solving problems, new vocabulary, new knowledge. Research has proven, and our common sense has always told us, that children learn best when they are having fun. Playing with each child separately provides the perfect context for hands-on, enjoyable learning experiences.

During Special Time parents can model and teach important skills, habits, and values: taking turns, sticking to the rules of a game, staying flexible and patient when things don’t go as planned, handling disappointment and frustration without resorting to blame, being a good sport (not gloating when they win or complaining when they lose).

Children naturally imitate the actions, gestures, and even the tone of voice of the people who are most important to them. One-on-one, the parent is usually at his or her calmest, least irritated, and least critical. With plenty of Special Time, the child will automatically start to imitate the positive habits and qualities and values of the parent. This enables you to be more effective at your job of transmitting to your children and teens the values, skills, and habits that are important to you.

Quite a few children, especially the sensitive, intense ones, are dismayed by the gulf between what they are able to do and what adults are able to do. Children with a highly competitive or perfectionist streak can become very frustrated and may want to give up and stop trying to improve their skills. Special Time is an ideal vehicle for teaching children and teens the small steps that lead eventually to mastery.

Even more benefits of Special Time

It’s easy for us, as parents, to take it for granted that our children know how much they mean to us. After all, so much of what we do is for our family. But too often children don’t really know how much they are loved, even when we tell them again and again. Often this is because our frequent annoyed reminders, warnings, frowns and scoldings seem to contradict ‘I love you’.

We need to communicate our love for our children in a way that they can understand and absorb. When we consistently arrange for Special Time to happen, it shows our children that we not only love them because they are our children, but that we also like them for who they are, and we want to spend time with them. Liking is as important as loving. When we are willing, on a daily basis, to temporarily set aside our adult concerns and tasks and become involved in our child’s world, this demonstrates to her that we value her and are interested in her pastimes, her challenges, her worries, her enthusiasms, her dreams, and her feelings, not just in her behaviour, her grades, or whether she practised the piano that day. Children grow in confidence when they can see that the most important people in their world (and that is what parents are, even for teenagers – although this may not always be obvious!) want to hang out with them. Special Time boosts self-confidence, self-reliance, and cooperation far more effectively than mere words can, no matter how loving our words might be.

When the most important people in his world are demonstrating an ongoing desire to spend time with him, your child’s self-confidence, his enthusiasm for life, his willingness to tackle uncomfortable tasks, and his motivation to please you and to make you proud of him will all grow steadily.

As you follow Noël’s recommendations, you’ll soon be delighted by how much calmer, easier and happier relationships between you and your children become.

One of the delightful benefits of frequent Special Time is that away from the siblings, the parent is usually seeing the best side of each child (attentive, relaxed, receptive, curious, etc), which makes the parent enjoy being with the child more and more. And as the parent notices the child’s good qualities, the parent feels more relaxed and confident about himself as a parent: ‘If my kid is this great, I must be a pretty good parent!’

copyright © Noël Janis-Norton 2021

In addition to Special Time and Independent Play, there are many other strategies that also help to improve sibling relationships, including:

Descriptive Praise
The Five-Second Rule
United Front
Reflective Listening
Establishing rules and routines
Giving your oldest child special privileges
Action Replays
Family Time
Planning your day realistically
Couple Time

I explain about all of these useful strategies in my books and audiobooks. In particular, you might be interested in the audiobook, ‘Siblings With Less Rivalry’ (for sale on the website).

You’ll also find articles about many of these strategies in the Blog section of the website. For videos and podcasts, please visit our Youtube channel and our Facebook page.

Descriptive Praise free ebook

If you don’t yet have your copy of my free ebook that explains this foundation strategy in detail, and that gives you lots of helpful examples, you can get instant access by adding your details here.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us:

In addition to our books, audiobooks and ebooks, we also provide free support materials in the blog section of our website (videos, podcasts and articles), on our YouTube channel and on our Facebook page.

If you would like personalised advice that is specific to your family’s needs, we offer a parenting programme that consists of online private consultations plus in-person home visits.

For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher-training.

Please get in touch for more information. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

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