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"Special Time" Benefits the Attention-Giver, Too

Three years ago I began doing "special time" with my then eight-year-old neighbor, K-, and it has been one of the most valuable and challenging experiences in my adult life.

Special time is time an adult dedicates to being with a young person (though adults can do special time with each other, too). During that time the adult pays excellent attention to the young person, completely follows his or her lead, and does whatever the young person wants to do. It's a time when young people get to explore what they're interested in without the unthoughtful limits that are placed on them by adults' patterns. Special time is a wonderful contradiction to the oppression of young people.

There is no set amount of time you have to do-special time can be three minutes or three hours long, depending on how much you have attention for. I always set my beeper at the beginning of special time, and that makes it easier for me-knowing that in forty or forty-five minutes that bell will go off and I can stop!

I guess that is a good segue into discussing what makes special time difficult for most adults and why it's been hard for me, personally, to do. Special time not only contradicts oppression for the young people, it also contradicts the particular ways that we were oppressed by adults when we were children. Like any good contradiction, it makes us feel things. It brings our own childhoods right up to the surface.

For example, doing special time makes me feel scared (that K- isn't going to like me, that her parents will be mad at me, that I'll get too bored during special time). It makes me feel burdened and oppressed (that I'll never have enough time for myself, that doing special time is taking away from my life). When I know special time is coming up, I always have a little argument with myself: "Tonight is special time." "I know, but I really need to clean/do laundry/work out at the Y." "Is special time important?" "Yes. But it doesn't really matter. It doesn't make a difference." And then I have to answer to myself either: "Yes. It does make a huge difference, and I will do it," or "I don't know if it's good or not, but I made this commitment to doing it, and I'll abide by that. " Rationality doesn't always win out, I must say, and sometimes I do those other activities instead. I should add, also, that sometimes I can tell that being around K- makes me feel better in the long run even if it feels hard in the moment, and I go through with my commitment with that reasoning in mind.

I had always liked playing with K- and her brother up to a point. But when I hit that point where I couldn't think anymore, I would feel violated, like they were taking advantage of me. I would feel that if they didn't go home right away, I was going to freeze up and die. I think this is related to my experience of being anaesthetized and staying in a hospital by myself as a little baby. I would (and still do!) feel an urgent need to escape. K- and her brother would often make a big mess in my apartment and break things, and I felt so un-in-charge that I could neither keep them from doing it nor could I just enjoy their exuberance and realize it wasn't such a big deal cleaning up afterwards. (These things are still challenges for me, but I no longer feel quite so victimized.)

Feelings became even more painful when I made an actual commitment to do special time with K- (I chose K- for special time over her brother just because I felt like I would experience less restimulation with her). Corinne Goodman was doing a biweekly class for people in our Region who were doing special time. Since I wanted to be in the class, and since I was truly interested in doing special time (although also very scared and uncommitted-feeling), I decided to take the plunge.

Corinne is my Regional Reference Person. She and Sharon Peters, an Area Reference Person, are both mothers and have been doing family work for fifteen years or so with their own families and other families. Because of their special commitment to family work, ithas strongly influenced the practice of counseling in our Region. Mainly, it has helped people to know the importance of "working early" on distresses and to acknowledge the magnitude of distresses that arise from growing up in a society which does not believe that children are fully human. I think doing special time and family work has helped make us playful counselors, able to discharge and listen to our clients discharge a lot of embarrassment. It has also helped us be good listeners to each other, and to know when not to crowd out our clients' thinking with automatic directions for their sessions.

Corinne's special-time class meets every other Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. in Brooklyn. One of the most valuable parts of the class is the opening circle, where people share a highlight from their last special time. The stories are often moving. I think if the class were limited to just the opening circle, it would still be of enormous usefulness to us. It helps just to know that there are other people in the world and in my very own city-wow!-who are trying to do this difficult thing that I'm trying to do. In opening circle it also comes out that special time is really hard for everybody. When the class first started, there would be times when only some of the parents there had done special time that week. It helped me a lot to know how hard this was for everybody.

Everyone in the class has a buddy. Our goal is to do a phone mini-session at least once between classes (turns out that's hard to do, too-interesting!) to report on every single thing that happened during special time, paying special attention to what we did well. I don't know where I'd be without a "special-time buddy"; I probably would never do special time.

For months and months I would come to class and discharge on how much I hated being with K- and how I was going to die of boredom (it really did/does feel this heavy) if I had to spend another special time with her. But in the meantime, Corinne and other people I trust were telling me that something looked good about this for me, so I kept up the effort to do special time. I think what they saw is that it was easy for me to discharge about this project, and it was obviously a contradiction to my chronic distress of wanting to be alone. I think in the midst of all my bad feelings and dread about family work, a lot of my natural zest bubbled up and showed itself in a way it usually doesn't.

A little bit about the content of my special time with K- : It doesn't always feel dramatic. For the first two years, K- would generally (and still often does) want to play a game where she sets up my laundry-drying rack, takes all the underwear and shirts out of my drawers, pretends to wash them, and then arranges them all neatly on the rack to dry. Often this game includes having her play the mother and me the teenage daughter. She asks me what clothes I'm going to wear to the party or to school, and then a pretend-friend of mine (me being the teenage daughter) will call on the phone, and K- will ask me who it is. Depending on my answer, she will give me permission to go out with him/her or will pick up the receiver herself and yell at him/her. I used to wonder if nothing was happening during these special times because the play seemed so repetitive. But I think that's young people's oppression wanting to be heard. In truth, anything she would choose to do during her special time would be dramatic simply because it's what she wants, and people seldom do what they want.

Playing laundry and teenage daughter is exactly what K- has wanted to do, and I've had to respect that. She's picked a place where it's hard for me to pay attention. Maybe she's pushing me. Recently, though, she's shifted our game so that it's more often she who is the teenage daughter (she's eleven now), and I'm the mother. She takes showers during special time, puts perfume on, blow-dries her hair, goes shopping in my closet, and dresses up in the clothes she's picked out. This dress-up game is much more interesting to me than folding the laundry, but it is not more worthwhile. There's nothing more inherently interesting about it; I just happen to have more attention for it.

I want to talk about how things have developed and changed for me as a result of doing special time. About five months ago, K- asked if she could spend the night on the upcoming Friday. She had stayed overnight a couple of times before, and I had found it very hard. On those occasions I had gone to bed feeling crowded out of my own life by her presence, and by Saturday morning I would be numbly watching cartoons while she begged me to play with her. I was actually surprised that she wanted to try it again.

I told her I didn't think I could do it because it had been too hard the times before. I told Corinne this, and Sharon, and they told me that young people are usually really smart about things like this, that if K- had asked to spend the night with me, then there was something she knew about it being valuable that I did not grasp. They recommended I trust K- on this one and tell her that at some point in the future she could spend the night, and that I would do the work I needed to do in order to be able to do it. This made sense to me.

When I saw K- next, I spoke to her about it, and we set a date for a couple of weeks later. K- seemed to approve of my thinking during our second conversation. I think I remember that she was nodding her head while we talked. When she spent the night this time, it was wonderful. Corinne and Sharon had told me that I didn't need to pay special-time-quality attention to her the whole night, and that helped me, too. We did special time right at the beginning of the sleep-over, and for the rest of the night we did fun things, but I didn't have my attention totally fixed on her. We did things that were fun for both of us, like watching a video and making popcorn. Before we went to bed, I coaxed her into a pillow fight. When we went to bed, we decided to both sleep on my bed, which was great. She told me, when we'd turned the lights out, about a boy who has a crush on her, and she also told me a dream she'd had where somebody killed a friend of hers. I think that the closeness and fun we had shared during the evening made her want to reveal to me her secrets and fears. During the night I woke up several times and thought how beautiful she was and how much I loved her. I felt very tenderly towards her and not at all resentful.

Shortly after this sleepover, I began to notice that while I still did not look forward to doing special time, I was feeling much closer to K- in general. In phone minis after special time, I would often need to cry about how much I loved her. This only escalated. Suddenly I was having to take my time in special-time class on deeply caring about her and other young people that I knew already or that I would just encounter on the street. I noticed with real surprise that I was not the cold-hearted person I had always thought I was. I honestly had believed up to this point that I couldn't care about people. In some ways this had been drilled into me while I was growing up. My sister was supposed to be the tender, caring one in our family, and I was the angry one.

It was a real revelation to me that I loved K- and that I could feel it. It wasn't anything particular about her-she's a wonderful person, but I think my tender feelings for her sprang more from my commitment than from anything particular about her or me. Also, I have to say that I think committing to a young person was a good place to start because they generally are easy to love. They don't carry quite the threat or the many patterns that adults do.

I really feel like I "have" K- in a way that I've never felt with other people. She seems to be my assurance that things are good in the world. I have come to depend on my caring for her as one of the most sustaining things in my life. This summer K- was away at camp for two months, and it was a difficult time for me. Regular contact with her has made a huge difference in my connection to all the people in my life.

Doing special time is still not easy for me. I still "hate" it. I still often resent K- and what feels like her claims on my time. But the great thing is that I have softened up a lot since embarking on this project, and, speaking as a person who struggles with numbness and isolation, I think making a commitment to do special time with a young person would make a similar difference in the lives of other adults.

Kate Potter
Brooklyn, New York, USA

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00