Special Days

Now that we are mostly moved-in to the rental house in Lakewood, and Kathy has returned from her two-week trip to Michigan, there is a sense of settling in as we hammer out our daily routines and begin to establish patterns of living in this new place.

In the past, I have intermittently observed ‘Special Days’ with my children. Special Days™ entail an hour (or ninety minutes) of focused time spent on just one of the children, each day. The weekly schedule somehow worked itself out to be:

  • Joshua -> Thursday
  • Rachel -> Monday
  • Daniel -> Wednesday
  • David -> Tuesday
  • Sarah -> Friday

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Sometimes Special Days get a little rough.

Truth be told, Sarah never really got her ‘Special Day®’ … I had mostly discontinued this regular practice by the time she was old enough to be aware of the privilege. Isn’t it tidy, though, that we now have five children … Monday through Friday is filled. When David was born, and his siblings asked, mercilessly, when he would get a Special Day©, the party line was: “When he can say ‘Special Day™’, he can have one.” Of course, that led to the children coaching a 3-month-old David, helpfully: “Say Special Day®, David, say Special Day&copy.”

The kids used to wait on the fence for me in 1999 when we lived in Kirkland. How time flies!

The kids really looked forward to their Day … I found it a good opportunity to catch up on what they were thinking and to ‘connect’ on an individual level. The practice started when I was working for AT&T Wireless and we lived in Kirkland … I began to bring one child (at that time we had only three) to McDonalds on a weekday morning. We would eat breakfast together and I would watch as they clambered around on the play structure … it was surprisingly fun for them to peek and call out to me from various vantage points. The key seemed to have me engage in their play, rather than (as I sometimes tried) sitting and reading my book while they played. Later (as my work-from-home privileges were extended and I had some flexibility in my work day) we began to diversify … I would take one child ‘exploring’ in a nearby park during lunch time, or I would go on a bike ride with another child. Sometimes we would go to Denny’s, or have a picnic lunch in the yard, play a board game, or just muck about with toy soldiers and blocks on the floor.

One favorite activity was to line up a bunch of soldiers and take turns shooting marbles at each other’s army, eliminating soldiers as they were struck. I don’t know why that was so fun … perhaps the ‘realistic’ dying sounds and rolling around on the floor added to the charm of this simple game. This might be a little bloodthirsty for some, but our kids like it and I’m particularly skilled at “Arrrrghhhh!” sounds.

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This little girl can say “Arrrrghhhh!” with the best of them.

The smaller children prefer to simply sit down and read through a stack of 15 or 20 books. I used to keep a journal about the time we spent, which Kathy would read with no small amusement and the occasional snide remark about the way I always record the weather.

I saw a number of benefits from this practice. First, Kathy and I noticed a distinct improvement in the children’s behavior, particularly Rachel and Daniel. Similarly, we saw a definite decrease in emotional outbursts when ‘Special Days’ were regularly enjoyed. I felt more in-touch with my children, and more confident in my discipline. I had more opportunities to teach the kids about God, and a chance to seriously and patiently answer some of their many questions. I think that Kathy felt loved and proud of my involvement with the kids.

But it takes a lot of time and energy, especially now that there are so many of the little blighters, I mean, darlings. Even while I was unemployed, I found that I was only able to celebrate ‘Special Days’ with the kids on a sporadic basis. Each week, the expectations seemed to be higher and higher and the pressure to find a ‘really fun’ activity became almost paralyzing.

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This picture doesn’t really have anything to do with this blog, but since I didn’t write about Halloween, it will have to be stuck in here. Daniel received a lot of positive comments about his costume.

Perhaps now, more than ever, it is important that I spend some individual time with each child, so that they will feel valued and loved ‘apart from the crowd’.
I’ve taken the kids out to breakfast at McDonalds once or twice since we’ve moved to Lakewood and everyone found that to be a fun outing. Celebrating their special days by eating out five times a week seems a prohibitive expense, and hacking an hour out of each busy workday seems nearly impossible.

And yet … Special Days seem to be very important to the kids. When I get home in the evening, I am usually hungry and tired, and don’t particularly feel like Super Fun Daddy. Our evenings are rarely well-scheduled, and mealtimes are sometimes irregular. How can I carve out the time, privacy, money and energy necessary to make this time well-spent?

When I was nine or ten, our family planned a week-long ski vacation in Switzerland. My folks pulled us out of school, and we set out southward in our little VW square-back wagon from our home in Wiesloch, Germany. About an hour or so into the journey, Dad was cruising along in the left lane of the Autobahn at around 90 mph, when the engine suddenly shut off. Expertly changing lanes as traffic whizzed around us, Dad nipped into an opportune rest area and the car coasted to a halt beside one of those emergency roadside phones. Ultimately, we rode to town perched high on the bed of a tow truck. My little sister, Posie, thought it was great fun, and looked down on the traffic below with regal pity and considerable glee. We were back at our home before dark, very disappointed with the sudden end to our vacation.

In a moment of brilliance or deep wisdom, my parents decided to pretend that we were still on vacation. Dad was on leave, we were excused from school, other social and ministry engagements were cancelled. They reasoned that no one would be the wiser, and we could enjoy some family time at home. We kept the window-shades down in the house, and (with our car in the shop) no one knew we were home.

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This is one of the only family photos in which I am not scowling, so I include it for historical reference.

The weather was cold and rainy, so we just stayed inside and played board games for much of the time. We popped popcorn and ate a lot of breakfast foods; meals were not according to any particular schedule and were often self-serve affairs, ‘whatever you can find’. Dad astounded us all with his famous technique of ‘stirring sandwiches’ and general ineptitude in the kitchen.

It was during this week that the Great Rubber Band Fight was born, and we spent hours planning strategies to dislodge my Dad from his fortress and to capture Big Red, the coveted WMD of rubber bands. We learned that Mom, although a noncombatant, was hardly nonpartisan, and would smuggle aid to the enemy at the first opportunity. Posie honed her Kung Fu techniques, and amused us at every opportunity with fierce attacks on her hulking brothers. It is also during this time that I remember my parents first drawing out the plans for the retreat center they hoped some day to open, a project that is even now under way.

It was Thursday before anyone discovered we were home … maybe we left one of the blinds open, or perhaps one of us incautiously answered the phone, but the jig was up, and my parents were swept back into the rush of their usual commitments. In the meantime, we had one of the best vacations ever.

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Sadly, there were no pictures taken that vacation. But here’s my brother showing a little leg, anyway.

Those are the kind of memories I want my children to have. (Not memories of my brother’s hairy leg — memories of fun family vacations. You understand the need to clarify.) That is why ‘Special Days’ are so important … they communicate to each child on a regular, scheduled basis that they are precious and valued. Kathy has bought many activity books for me and often has ideas … there is no real excuse on that front. So it just comes down to this question: where are my priorities? Would I rather play Age of Empires by myself than spend that time with my kids? In theory, the answer is a resounding “No!”. But some questions are rhetorical … it can be best not to answer them, or not to look too closely at the answers.

And so I began with Daniel, since it was Wednesday. He and I gathered up the Stratego game and closeted ourselves upstairs with a small table and our game. I taught him some of the key strategies I learned from my uncle Steve and carefully let him win (a surprisingly difficult and painful thing for one as competitive as I). We talked about the game and nothing of consequence, but I think he enjoyed it. He (having been coached in advance) carefully thanked me when we were done, rather than complaining that it was ‘too short’ or ‘not fun enough’ as has been his habit in the past.

Naturally, with such a strong beginning, I missed the next two special days. We dined with my sister and her family on both of the successive evenings, and the time slipped away without celebrating Joshua or Sarah’s special days. Over the weekend, I made up Joshua’s (we spent an hour playing a computer game together) but Sarah remains short-changed. So far no one has pointed out this slight to Sarah, but I’m sure one of the children will quickly correct that oversight.

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Would you buy a used car from this girl?

When we were talking about Special Days at supper on Wednesday, and she was informed that she would get one, her little face lit up: “I get a Special Day?” she shouted, raising her little eyebrows in a comical manner. She doesn’t know what it is, but if the rest of the kids get one, by golly she wants one. Tonight I will try not to forget Rachel’s day … I don’t want to unnecessarily fuel the competition between her and Daniel.

It can be difficult sometimes. I don’t know about you, but I find that “Chutes and Ladders” does not provide sufficient intellectual stimulation to be truly enjoyable for me. Lying down on the floor and driving trucks around on the rug can lose its charm after only a few minutes, for many of us. But I have found that if I focus on the son or daughter rather than on the activity, it rivets my attention. Every now and then a window opens and you get a glimpse of the heart of your child … it can be a breathtaking view.

I have to be really careful to take my ‘parent’ hat off during Special Days. In my passion for encouraging righteousness, I constantly struggle with my tendency to judge, correct or rebuke my children on a 24×7 basis. While setting a standard and holding your children to that standard is a large part of parenting, Special Days seem to operate outside the scope of that parental function. It seems to be a matter of trust and relationship building … often during such times my children confide in me their doubts and dreams, victories and sins. Taking a harsh, corrective stance at this point can quench that trust more quickly than you can imagine. When a child opens their heart to you, it is like being invited into a precious garden. You can walk carefully on tip-toes, admiring each blossom, or you can stomp in with hobnailed boots, ripping out any plant that might be a weed. When I choose the latter, it is often a long time before I am again invited in. It is hard to remember this.

The other day Kathy was listening to a homeschooling tape about Filling Your Child’s Love Bucket and the speaker shared that her husband celebrates “Special Days” with his children. Kathy was vaguely affronted that someone else had ‘stolen’ our family given name, but I must say that I wish all Dads would steal it. We live in a society where the broken family has become the norm, and many children are growing up with little or no relationship with one or both of their parents, even where their parents remain together. It is such a little thing, only an hour a week, but it seems to make a huge impact on the heart of a child.

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Our couch was too heavy to move out of the garage, so there it stays.

[Editor's Note: Since this blog entry was written, I have enjoyed considerable success. I played Battleship with Rachel, read books over rootbeer floats with David, played Tri-ominoes with Daniel, taught Joshua to play an Avalon-Hill game, and read books with Sarah. So far this week I took Rachel to Baskin Robbins (Kathy nearly threw a temper-tantrum over the unfairness of it all) and played Legos and Crossfire with David. Perhaps because of the sporadic nature of past Special Days, David hasn't realized I intend to make this a weekly event. Each time his Day is over, he asks for another, and I magnanimously grant him another day on the following Tuesday. He runs off and tells Kathy, excitedly, "I get another Special Day on Tuesday! It warms my heart. ]

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This boy would take all his Special Days in a tractor, if we had one. In Michigan, he stuck like glue to Kathy’s Dad, and called me “Grandad” for a week after they got back. High praise, indeed.

[Special Day™®© is neither a registered trademark or copyrighted in any way, shape or form. I just like playing with the HTML codes for those symbols.]

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