Are We Teaching Our Kids to be Dysfunctional about Time?

Prison Countdown Clock. Because it's not too soon to start that Christmas shopping.

The book writing is coming along, which means I’ve got Sabbath on the brain all the time. (Too bad I haven’t taken one in a couple of weeks. Oops.)

I’m finding that the book is really not about Sabbath. It is about Time: how we understand it, measure it, spend it. Time is a great leveler because we all have a finite amount of it. Even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company cannot cheat death (though admittedly, top-notch health care doesn’t hurt).

So here’s something I’ve been kicking around about time, and I don’t have an answer. I’ve always heard that with kids, it’s beneficial to give them some warning when it’s time to transition from one activity to the next—especially if the first activity is something fun that they aren’t going to want to stop doing. Parenting experts advocate a countdown, e.g. “five minutes and then we need to leave the playground,” or “we leave for the bus in ten minutes.”

We are practitioners of this method, mainly because it makes life easier: more warning means fewer tantrums because they wanted to go down the slide One! More! Time!, and fewer frantic searches for shoes when we need to walk out the door. But we also do it because it respects our children as people. I don’t like being yanked around without warning and wouldn’t like it if it were done to me.

On the other hand, I wonder whether there is a downside, in the sense of making the awareness of time a little too prominent a feature of our kids’ lives. Childhood is great kairos time (holy time, time outside of time) in a lot of ways. Kids get what it means to be immersed in an activity, enjoying it for its own sake, not worrying about the clock. Does the warning system take them outside of this immersiveness and condition them to be aware of time in ways that aren’t helpful? And is there a cost to them in terms of their development or their enjoyment of childhood?

What do you think?

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10 thoughts on “Are We Teaching Our Kids to be Dysfunctional about Time?

  1. marciglass says:

    My kids never really could tell when they were little that “5 minutes” meant five minutes of clock time. So I wasn’t sure what the value was to tell them that. (Although I did.) Wonder if it would have been more helpful to say, “it is almost time to leave the playground, so if you want to go down the slide (dig in the dirt, whatever) a few more times, you should do that now.”

    When I was a little older, and would go to my cello lesson without having practiced much, because I didn’t “have time”, my cello teacher would say, “You didn’t have time? How many hours are in your day, Marci?”
    Sensing the trap, I would answer, “24?”
    “Wow! i have 24 hours in my day too, and I found time to practice!”

    • MaryAnn says:

      Good point.
      I *could* defend the practice by saying that over time, they start to learn what five minutes means through repetition of that technique… except that “five minutes” is always a bit squishy when I’m keeping track 🙂

  2. I, too, wonder: John Denver’s
    it’s about time
    and it’s about
    changes and it’s
    about time

  3. susan says:

    I have learned that Selam has absolutely no idea what time means. And I confess, I’m not particularly in a hurry to teach her that. We measure things concretely. So, yes, I’m a warning giver, as well. But I give warnings in terms of activities. “We have time to do two more fun things….what will you choose?” “In three more puzzle pieces we have to go to school.” “In four more sleeps, Gramma is coming.” I guess it’s a baby way of living, but it’s the way we do it. I kind of like it—measuring life by slides and puzzle pieces, rather than minutes.

    • Shala says:

      I love this idea. I have to date been doing the squishy combination of “We have to leave in 5 minutes, so if you want to slide down the slide, now’s the time to do it.” But I love your method and will look for ways to use it with my own four-year-old.

  4. prespreacher says:

    “Time is on my side, yes it is, yes it is” Rolling Stones. True or huge misconception that fuels the idea that we are in control in our busy world?

  5. Rachel says:

    If one were to give the child a constant countdown (You have 20 minutes left. 15. 10…9… etc.), then I think it could be a problem. But notifying that we are entering a time of transition doesn’t necessarily take away from the time of immersion.

    And to chime in on whether or not kids understand what five minutes means, I combine giving the time left plus saying, “That gives you enough time to go on three more slides,” for example.

    • Shala says:

      We use a timer at bedtime to contain how long it takes for our Four-Year-Old to get ready for bed. (If it takes too long, we start chopping away the bits of the process she likes, like the pre-bedtime stories and dances). We had thought that using a real timer that chimes “Five minutes”, then “four minutes” would be fair and therefore a great parenting plan. But hearing a stranger announce the time remaining turns out to really stress her out. She likes our squishy time better. Naturally.

      So I keep the timer for myself, but don’t let her know I’m using it as a guide for when to call out “Three minutes!”

  6. Ruth Everhart says:

    Don’t sweat it, they’ll turn out to be just like you no matter what you do. This is the great hidden truth of parenthood that should make us all shake in our boots.

    But on a practical note, Doug used to say “bedtime is in half an hour, that’s one Power Rangers.” Power Rangers was their favorite show, it was 30 minutes, they knew how long that was.

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