What David (and each of my other children) wanted was me—just to himself.

One to One

Many are the gifts a father gives his child during a lifetime. Among the most significant are his time, his recognition of each child’s individuality, his love and warmth, his inspired guidance, and his esteem and friendship. Here are some suggestions for fathers as they consider their important work.

If it hadn’t been for the wrestling, I wouldn’t have learned the lesson as soon as I did. I might still be thinking it was best always to involve all my children in most activities, to give them maximum exposure to their parents and to each other. But wrestling with David changed my mind.

David was six when I tackled him to the living room floor one night after dinner. He loved it, especially when I let him pin me to a count of “one … two …” He’d continue to giggle as I then twisted up a shoulder, rolled over, and pinned him for a two-count before letting him escape. “Another six years and this won’t be so easy,” I’d think, and we’d roll and laugh until I called “Time!” and scooted David off to bed.

I should have known that the next evening I would be the one tackled. “Let’s rassle,” my opponent squealed, and “rassle” we did—that night and many nights thereafter.

It was on the third or fourth evening of that first week that I learned the lesson. That evening our four-year-old Taylor watched for a moment and then said, “I wanna do it.” I was ready to grab him and pull him into the melee when David snapped, “No! You’re too little. This is for me and Dad.” I was surprised, and Taylor was hurt. Thinking it my job to teach a lesson in sharing and fairness, I said, “Taylor’s a big boy too. He can have a turn.” And I pulled him over and let him “pin” me.

David’s interest in wrestling decreased instantly. For the rest of that and subsequent evenings, David took his turn and had fun, but it wasn’t the same. His heart wasn’t in it. It was Taylor or I who said, “Let’s rassle,” not David. Why? I wondered. Could it be that it wasn’t the wrestling he loved most, but the personal, individual attention? When his brother joined in, wrestling became, for David, just another family activity—fun, but standard. Not special. I began to see the importance of individual time with children.

An experience with my daughter supported this idea of personal attention. Angela was nine the winter I promised to take her ice skating. We agreed to wait until after Christmas, and in my mind this activity developed into a family one. But various activities, as well as winter sniffles, kept us from all being available at the same time, and the trip was continually postponed. And when we finally found a time we could all go, the ice in the outdoor rinks had melted.

It soon became clear that Angela felt she had been cheated. She had thought this was to be her special day with her dad—not a family activity. She hadn’t had a cold, and I should have left the others home and gone earlier in the season.

These and other experiences—including mine as a boy with my own father—have convinced me that a parent can spend his or her time no better than in individual time with each child. Personal time with a parent can help a child feel special and important. Somehow such time helps a child blossom into his “real” self instead of his “group” or “social” self. He seems more willing to express his true feelings and concerns in an individual activity with a parent.

Some figures suggest that in the United States the average father spends less than two minutes a week in direct conversation with each of his children. Estimating your total for a week might be revealing—it was for me. It is difficult to find time for the attention a child needs, but a great deal can be done, with some planning and effort. A parent with older children might need to be more creative, but here are some things my wife and I have done to promote one-on-one experiences with our young offspring.

—Once or twice a year, during the summer or other school holidays, each child can come to dad’s office for part of a day, including lunch.

—Occasionally, instead of the bedtime story dad tells every night in each of the children’s bedrooms, I tell the story to one child at a time, sometimes using the child himself as a character in the plot, or leaving blanks for the child to fill in his own characters or actions. (“One day Bre’r Rabbit was walking down the road and saw a ______.”) It’s guaranteed to be a more interesting story than a parent would tell on his own!

—Driving to town for errands? Working in the garden or yard or workshop? Visiting a new neighbor? That’s right, take along a child.

—Our family goes fishing often, and all the kids usually go. But occasionally I invite along only one. (That way dad gets to go fishing more often.) Once a year, at least, I sleep in the backyard with each child alone. Some years we’ve gone to a campground for this outing.

—Each child has his own section of the vegetable garden that is marked off as his or her own. Interest in gardening has grown greatly at our house since we started this subdividing.

—Scouting lends itself to individual attention as parent and Scout work together on skills and achievements.

—My work schedule is such that I can usually take a vacation day on each child’s birthday (or part of the day if the child is in school). That day is his or hers to plan. If he wants to schedule something alone with me for part of the day, he can—and usually does.

—Though my children aren’t aware of it, I consider Monday Angela’s day, Tuesday David’s, and so on through the week. On these days I try to give special attention to that child. Without announcing this, I just try to be aware of that child, and, if nothing else, stay a little longer at tuck-in time with him or her. Other parents expand this idea to a week for each child.

—A date night or afternoon with a child gives him or her a chance to plan an activity with a parent.

—On fast Sundays I interview each child. This is a chance to ask about feelings, plans, hopes, complaints, or problems of any sort without judgments or preachings. My kids enjoy sitting on my lap or lying on their bed beside me. Extra interviews can be requested by either party at any time during the month. Their mother also makes it a point to chat with them on another day of the month and helps the children set monthly goals for themselves—in reading, music practice, traits to improve on, etc.

—“What did you do in class today?” is a frequent dinner-table question after Sunday School, Primary, and on school days. Each child can respond with his feelings to whatever depth he wishes. Often we hear a report of what was served at school lunch. But more often than not, at least one child will expound on something that he’s learned, and so for a few minutes he is the expert on that topic and the rest of us are the students. (Dad, do you know your child’s Sunday School, Primary, and school teachers?)

—When possible my wife and I both attend parent-teacher conferences and school and church programs in which our children participate. A home rerun can be provided when either parent’s schedule won’t allow attendance at such programs.

—Once in a while at dinner I’ll say something like, “One morning when we were living in Western Samoa, it was just two days before Christmas and raining very hard. Your mom woke me up early and said, ‘We need to go to the hospital now.’” And I’ll then tell the story of the birth of one of the children—Taylor, in this case—while I watch out of the corner of my eye for a sign of recognition on Taylor’s face as he realizes I’m talking about him. This never fails to bring a happy look to the face of the child in the spotlight. Repeating early childhood incidents brings the same look of interest, as do words of praise for a particular good trait a child has exhibited.

Hard work? Yes. Time consuming? Absolutely. Requires planning? Certainly. Is it worth it? When three-year-old Matthew reminds me all summer that “You and me ate lunch at your work, huh, Dad?” or when my eight-year-old weeds his garden without being asked, or when my ten-year-old hugs me after an interview, then I know that it is.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten, Jed Clark, Marilyn Erd, and Eric White

Ron Woods, a supervisor of curriculum development at Brigham Young University and father of six, serves as executive secretary in the Edgemont Third Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake.