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Why only 15 minutes of daily play is enough time with your child

After fast meals and fast workouts, how about fast parenting? Joanna Fortune recommends a quarter of an hour of mindful, focused play every day with our kids, writes Emily Hourican

There’s a phrase I’ve been hearing constantly since my first child was born, 14 years ago. It’s a kind of mantra, meant to be comforting: ‘good enough is good enough’ is how it goes. Which sounds lovely, until you begin to think but what is ‘good enough’? What does it actually mean?

It is not until I read psychotherapist Joanna Fortune’s 15-Minute Parenting, The Quick and Easy Way To Connect With Your Child that I get a proper definition of the concept: It is “defined by our intentions. If our intentions are good and genuine they will help us to form safe, secure and lasting attachments with our children”.

Which I love. Because my intentions are nearly always good; it’s the execution of them that sometimes lets me down.

It is this kind of thing that makes 15-Minute Parenting a comforting, and indeed compelling, read. It’s the clarity, and then the practicality of it. The no-fuss, positive, upbeat, get-on-with-it-ness of it.

The book is for parents who may be experiencing difficulty in their relationship with their children, or whose children may be themselves experiencing difficulties, but it is also for any parent who feels they could be doing more, who has a nagging sense of guilt around the amount, and quality, of time they spend with their children. Basically, every parent in that case.

“I didn’t want this to be a book that people read and went ‘isn’t that interesting...’,” says Joanna, “because, to be frank, so what? I wanted this to be a book that people will go, ‘that’s interesting and now I know how to do it’. I wanted it to be digestible and also do-able. Saying to busy working parents, ‘here’s yet another thing to fit into your day’, is just like bashing them over the head. Instead, what I’m saying is, ‘this is just about tweaking what you’re already doing. And that little and often is enough.”

Little and often. Fifteen minutes of proper, focused, mindful playtime; not time divided between them, your phone, the oven, in order to fully reconnect with your child. It’s certainly do-able on all but the maddest days, but is it really enough?

“Yes. I always believe that small changes can make big differences. What can be off-putting is the idea of ‘I have to change everything to fix this’. I’ve worked with a lot of families where both parents work outside the home, and the thing that came up a lot was parents saying ‘by the time we get home and get dinner on the table, we often find we’ve only 15 minutes before bedtime. What can you do in 15 minutes? And that got me thinking, ‘well what could you do with 15 minutes?’ and in fact you can do an awful lot.”

She outlines this in great detail in the book, giving specifics of what and how to play. Much of it we will all be doing already — bathtime, for example, bedtime routines — so often it is just about re-imaging these things rather than incorporating more.

The book is also full of the kind of generally sensible no-nonsense advice all parents need to hear from time to time, such as this: “Time-out works with very few children,” (to which, in person, she adds with a laugh “I don’t believe in time-outs for children, but I think they can be really helpful for parents”.) There is also this (likely to be greeted with resounding cheers): “Children do not need playdates; they may want them... but they are a parental choice rather than a necessity.” And this: “We need to be very clear about what is and is not bullying as it is a word that has become somewhat casualised around children.” And for when it is bullying, she lays out a very clear strategy of what to do, with your child, your child’s teacher and the school.

Joanna has been a therapist for more than 12 years. She studied psychotherapy, and her clinical speciality for the last 10 years has been “the attachment relationship between parent (or care-giver) and child, and using that relationship, that connection, as a vehicle for positive change”.

So, 12 years of specialised experience, during which Joanna has worked with hundreds of children and families. However, only recently has she begun to see all this from the other side of the fence, as it were. Fifteen months ago, Joanna’s daughter Maisie was born. There is a famous quote about no battle plan ever surviving first contact with the enemy... so, how has she found it?

“When I was pregnant a lot of people told me I’d have no problems because of what I do. But,” she laughs, “it’s the difference between our thinking and our doing. There are days as parents that we all just want to sit and cry. Or have a cup of coffee that’s hot, from start to finish. There are days when you think ‘God, what did I do? I don’t know if I thought this through...’ We’re conditioned to think of parenting as the most rewarding thing we will do, and there are massive rewards in it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the hardest thing.”

So she isn’t constantly patient, calm, reasonable? ‘God no,” she laughs. “I think what I bring to my own parenting is sometimes helpful, and sometimes unhelpful, levels of knowledge, because we don’t parent out of our heads — we parent out of our hearts and our bodies.

“There are definitely days when I can feel my own frustration building. I’m human. I have a strong-willed child and I want to celebrate that — she’s such good fun. She’s full of divilment — but there are times, like when we’re going to be late, when I’m thinking ‘this is unhelpful!’”

Joanna, who married Corkman Diarmuid Lucey three years ago, makes the point that “we’re older parents; I’m 41 this year, I think we’re really lucky to have her”, which is naturally going to affect the way she parents, but she doesn’t minimise the sometimes overwhelming level of responsibility of it all. “They believe in us,” she says. “Having my own child really brought that home. She looks at me, and at her dad, and we are her world. The weight of that, when it hits you, is like a tsunami. We’re everything to her. She thinks we’re amazing. Even on the days when I don’t feel amazing. And that’s lovely, but it’s also absolutely overwhelming.”

Having a child after so long studying children has been, she says, a golden opportunity to put preaching into practise.

“She has upended everything, of course. But I see so much of all this in her — I see that what she wants more than anything, is me. I’m the toy. We can fill the house with toys, but the minute one of us comes into the room, she wants us. She’s so receptive to play and for me that’s a pleasure because I love doing it.”

But, Joanna points out: “I also work. It’s not that I can be available all the time. It’s about understanding that I haven’t derailed her development by not playing with her in that moment.”

This is a big part of Joanna’s experience and belief — that it is never too late. “Our relationships generally, and especially with our children, are a sequence, a dance: in synch, out of synch, back in synch. This book is about establishing helpful, practical ways to get back into synch.

“The parent-child relationship constantly evolves. Part of the challenge is that as soon as we think that we have it nailed, our children grow up a bit — and then all over again we’re going ‘wait, what worked six months ago no longer works...’

“That’s not because your child has changed, it’s because your parenting needs to grow up.”

Joanna is not yet back to clinical practice after having Maisie — but that doesn’t mean she’s taking it easy. As well as writing this book while on maternity leave, there’s also the TEDx talk she gave did just six weeks after Maisie was born, entitled ‘Is Social Media the Ultimate Shame Game?’

Did she ever consider not doing it, I ask?

“Never,” she responds without hesitation. “When you’re invited to give a TEDx talk, it’s not the thing you say no to.

“Maisie was cluster-feeding that day,” she recalls. “I was upstairs with my husband and I was about to go on and I literally took her off the breast and handed her to him, ran down the stairs, did the talk, ran back up the stairs, and put her straight back on the breast. I remember watching back the TEDx talk for the first time and going ‘oh, that’s what I said...’ It was kind of an out-of-body experience.”

And, she insists, she could never have done any of it without a strong support network. “My husband, when I said I’m going to do this TEDx talk, or I’m going to write this book while on maternity leave, he just said ‘of course you are’. And you need that. You can’t do it otherwise.”

Diarmuid sounds like a fairly relaxed guy, I say.

“He is, and that is key. Because I am quite busy in my head, it’s a balance. But also, I think we come into this as two capable adults, and it’s not that he’s ‘helping out’ with the baby, he’s parenting our baby. I partly take that for granted and also really appreciate the relationship we have.”

Joanna is also the parenting expert for Newstalk radio’s Moncrieff show, with a regular slot on Wednesdays.

So is there a pattern to the questions and dilemmas that listeners pose?

“Above all else I am struck by how every parent who contacts the show just wants to do the best they can,” she says. As for specifics: “It’s feeding, toilets, sleeping — these are the areas of our children’s lives that they really do have control over.”

I wonder if becoming a mother has changed the way she feels about other parents? Made her more or less forgiving?

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything but empathy and compassion for parents and that has always been my starting point, but of course becoming a parent myself has allowed me to ‘feel’ the weight of the constant demand parenting involves.”

As she points out: “We’re not coming into this, any of us, with a clean slate.” By which she means, our own experiences as children. Getting to grips with this involves, Joanna believes, doing — or trying to do — something she calls a ‘parental self-audit’.

“There is no better way to discover your own unresolved issues than to have a child,” she says with a laugh. “That will bring your stuff — stuff you didn’t even know you had — screaming to the surface! Our children, their behaviours, can activate something in us and we may or may not know what that is.”

So did she have to do this? “Of course,” she says, and explains. Joanna grew up in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, the second of five. “My mam stayed at home with us and my dad worked outside of the home [he is now an independent county councillor]. He travelled with his job quite a bit, yet he still managed to be a very hands-on dad.

“We lived right next door to my paternal grandmother and aunt, so I grew up with a very close relationship with both of them. If we were in trouble with our parents we could just hop over the wall into the always-empathetic arms of my Nanny Maisie.”

What has she found to be her ‘triggers’? “I know that I feel calmer if I know Maisie has eaten enough, whatever ‘enough’ is. So if, as children do, she goes ‘I’m not going to eat that today’ my response is ‘will I make you toast? Something else?’, when actually it’s more helpful if I can get out of that trigger and go ‘that’s OK, you’re not going to starve by missing one meal’. But that takes me switching off. I think it comes from the fact that I was quite a fussy eater as a child.

“I probably put my own mother through the wringer in ways that I only app reciate now. It’s because I was that fussy eater that I don’t want Maisie to be a fussy eater, and because of that very thing I run the risk of creating a fussy eater... you see how you can tie yourself up in this?”

God yes. All too easily. Which makes me all the more thankful that I’ve got 15-Minute Parenting to help me out.

  • 15 Minute Parenting: The Quick and Easy Way to Connect with Your Child, by Joanna Fortune, published by Gill Books, £12.99, is out on Friday

Parenting tips to help engage with your children

ALL IT TAKES

Engaging in 15 minutes of mindful, focused play with your child brings demonstrable physical and neurological benefits for both of you. When we connect with our children, in an authentic and meaningful manner, our emotional right brain is reaching out and connecting with their emotional right brain. This is a moment of meeting between you and your child that allows them to feel felt and get gotten by you. This supports the development of healthy attachment and creates foundations for positive mental health as they grow and develop.

JOANNA'S TOP 10 PARENTING TIPS

● Play is a state of being, not just a set of activities — and every one of us has a capacity to be playful.

● Children ‘do’ their communication rather than ‘say’ it — play is their language.

● We should not expect children under seven years old to self-regulate their own emotions, they co-regulate with us, their parents/carers; control the heat of the situation rather than just measuring it.

● Lead by example — our children learn through mirroring and repetition and they take their emotional lead from us.

● If you can’t say it in 10 words or less, then you must change how you are saying it.

● Good enough is good enough and ‘perfection’ is not good enough, so give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them.

● Our children want our presence more than our presents. Sitting next to you doing absolutely nothing can mean absolutely everything to your child.

● If you have to ask ‘are you listening to me?’, the answer is no.

● Always remember — small changes really do make big differences, hence 15 minutes of mindful play a day.

● Discipline should teach the behaviour you want to see rather than punish the behaviour you don’t want to see.

THREE TO TRY

● Ready Steady… If you have an impulsive child you’ll know that they tend to go on 1 or 2, rather than wait for 3. Avoid having to correct them by switching it up. Tell them to go when you say ‘strawberry’ (or similar). Now they have to stay tuned, waiting your cue; this keeps them in the moment.

● Mother May I? Getting ready for back-to-school also means helping your children re-adjust to being able to listen and follow teacher’s instructions. ‘Mother May I?’ can help with this. You tell your child to do something (make it fun, star jumps, jogging on spot, stand on one leg, etc), they must listen to your instruction, ask ‘Mother/Father May I?’ And then wait for your answer ‘yes you may’ or ‘no you may not’ and act accordingly.

● Punchbag... Maybe you have a child who likes to roughhouse in their play? This is not a problem — unless they are hurting someone else. Rather than get into a ‘no hitting’ dialogue, use play to communicate what they can hit instead. Blow up a balloon and tie a knot. Hold it out to the side of your body and on your cue your child can use it as a punchbag. I suggest you tell them that only hands can move and feet are stuck to ground so they don’t charge towards you.

IT’LL BE GRAND

Grandparents play such an important role in their grandchildren’s lives and emotional development, and often find they have more time, space and opportunity to be playfully present for their grandchildren than perhaps they could be when they were parenting themselves. Everything in the book is applicable to grandparents and supports nurturing the grandparent-grandchild relationship, whether you see your grandchildren every day or much less frequently.

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