"Special Time"

For a number of years we have been searching for better ways to encourage parents and allies of young people to see themselves as counselors for young people. Playdays, family classes, and family workshops have been supportive to parents and allies as they have tried to counsel the children in their lives. Still, what is possible in those formats is not always replicable at home. Many parents and allies have found it hard to sustain their growth as counselors of young people in between these Community functions. Some parents have felt discouraged or confused by seeing their children have heavy sessions with other adults when they have not been able to give these kinds of sessions at home.

Giving "special time" on a regular basis seems to be the most dependable way for parents and allies to keep thinking about themselves as counselors of young people and building their counseling skills.

What is "special time"?

"Special time" consists of being another person's one-way counselor for a period of time. The length of this period depends on the amount of time that you can keep your attention on the other person and the amount of time available. It could be ten minutes or several hours. If you can really be free to follow the other person's lead during this time, you often discover new things about him/her that help you understand him/her better and allow him/her to feel your caring.

Calling this one-way time "special time" as opposed to a "session" seems to help the person receiving the time to use it actively. Parents who have done special time regularly with their children have found that it is a basic way of keeping their relationships with each other tuned. The young people can feel that the parent is on their side and will begin to show the parent, often at times other than special time, the parts of their lives that they often keep to themselves or act out in confusing ways when they can't feel anyone's attention. Many people have also found that doing special time with their friends, spouses, and parents has been of great benefit to these relationships.

Most RC parents spend a lot of quality time playing with their children. Special time is different, however, in that it has intention to it-pre-announced intention. It works best if it happens regularly. "This is something we are going to do together." Your stated intention lets the other person anticipate and count on the time and think about or struggle with how he or she wants to use it. Setting aside special time assists you in not giving in to the many other distractions that tend to divert your attention.

There are many ways people use special time. Some people will use your attention to figure something out. Examples of this are repeatedly throwing the baseball to a receptive partner or using attention to climb to the top of a tree, ride a bike, or learn to drive. For some, feelings immediately surface that need to be worked on, for example: "I can't," "There won't be enough time," "You are boring," "I don't need your attention," "I don't know what I want," "Let's just do something you want to do." Sometimes people choose to use special time to push you in a place that you, or the relationship, is stuck. Examples of this are: getting you to spend money on them if money is tight; getting you to run a long distance if you are out of shape; getting you to watch them do something you can't stand, like play video games. In each case, the challenge for you as a counselor is to stay in there and let the other person feel your attention.

Some people receiving special time have big struggles with feeling your attention. They may try to establish that their difficulty is "reality" by challenging you to pay attention while they, for example, do an interminable, boring activity or play out their distress in fantasy games. If this is happening, you may have to be imaginative and sometimes firm in order to get some discharge started so that the dramatization ends and the person can actually use and enjoy your attention.

How can parents and allies get help doing special time?

Many experienced Co-Counselors who have done family work for years aren't doing special time with anyone. It may be helpful for such people to be in a special-time class. These classes almost teach themselves. Each member of the class makes a decision that he or she is going to do regular special time with a young person. Then at each meeting, every member reports on how that special time went (even if he or she couldn't do it). This sharing provides a great quantity of information about counseling young people. Then each member has discharge time on what gets hard in his or her special-time relationship. Having a task that everyone is trying to do keeps things focused and encourages people when they feel isolated in thinking this way about children.

In some Communities the classes meet weekly for a series of four, six, or eight weeks; in other places they meet as a support group once a month. Some classes include a separate time when the adults bring the person with whom they are doing special time and everyone does special time during the class. Some classes have arranged for round-robin assisted special time, where class members take turns going to the home of a person and thinking about him or her as he or she gives special time. In one class series I did, we decided to give each other special time every other meeting, because many of us had never received special time and found it hard to give for that reason. We gave special time to one person and got it from another, to stay focused on receiving attention rather than on keeping a relationship equal. Having special time gave people much more energy and insight and helped them to think about using their regular sessions more actively.

It seems that people are able to take part in a special-time group without any RC experience, and even Co-Counselors who know very little about family work can lead these groups with just a few guidelines and some support. Groups are successful with both parents and allies and with people doing special time with different-aged children. Many experiments are possible with this basic format.

How can special-time classes build family work?

Those of us who have done the most RC family work are encouraging Co-Counseling Communities to use the special-time class as a basic building block for family work and to let us know the results. Recent family workshops made up of participants who have all been doing regular special time have had a different tone than those made up of people without this experience. Parents and allies come with ideas of where they would like help.

If this simple concept can assist people in owning the counseling process, it will be much easier to share the ideas about young people that we have been developing. In established RC Communities where a lot of family work has gone on, there are often many trained "experts" and a centralized resource structure of family classes, playdays, and workshops. Recently these Communities have been trying to release more initiative in developing family work and spreading it to many new families. The special-time class is a great way to initiate this process.

Special Time with my sons

I have two sons with whom I do "special time." My wife and I homeschool our eleven-year-old son, and I spend lots of time playing and doing things with him. In the past I have often thought of this as special time. Recently, however, I have noticed that during many of those hours I have only part of my attention on him and am often distracted by things that need doing. This past year I talked with him about setting aside a time when I would just follow his lead in play, when he would get to decide what happened and how it happened. He liked the idea, so we arranged to do it once a week for an hour, after his guitar lesson.

During the first few special times he wouldn't be able to think of what he wanted to do with me or how he wanted to use my undivided attention. I would get impatient and would have to stop myself from making suggestions. He would often say, "Well, what would you like to do?" or "Let's go do this; you'll like this." I started to notice what a struggle it was for him to just want something for himself. He was always considering me first.

Often biting my tongue and sometimes failing, I tried to wait until he could figure out something that he really wanted to do. During some of the first special times he decided to go shopping and just look at the things he wanted. Recently he has chosen to use my attention to perfect skills. We go out and throw a baseball for an hour, or I toss him basketballs while he shoots. Often I have to stop myself from teaching or from asking him to keep trying when he is ready to move on quickly to something else. My experience with him has led me to see how early in life most of us give up on knowing what we want or on hoping someone else will actually have attention to do it with us. As the year continues, I watch my son become more confident and experiment more with how he can use me, now that he knows he has me for a fixed time. If my attention wanders, he'll remind me that it is his special time.

My other son is fourteen and in school. It's a struggle to find play time with him at all. During the school year, much of the time we do have together is devoted to homework or other things that need doing. Some of our best contact has been during car rides to school or school events. Remembering that my best memories of my own father were when he was on vacation and had the space to be playful, I have tried to set up special days or weekends with him, and we have both enjoyed having enough time to relax into sharing thoughts and playing together. While these outings and trips are special, they aren't always "special time." I try to have us spend parts of them that way, but like his brother, my older son also has a hard time thinking about what he would like to do. We've had some conversations about being able to care openly and the pressures to stop doing that when one becomes a teen. It is hard. His favorite phrase is, "I don't mind."

Recently, over his initial protest, my wife and I insisted that he let us give him special time. He started out by telling us he didn't want it, but that if we insisted, he was going to have us watch him read. He put us on the couch and gave me The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He instructed me to read every other word out loud. He gave my wife another long book and asked her to read one page to herself and then change books with me. He then sat down in another chair, took out his own book, and started reading to himself, chortling and laughing freely all the time. Soon we were all laughing, as my wife and I tried to follow our instructions. Thinking back on this "special time," I realize he had reversed the power roles of adults and young people and had set up a session for all of us. He rightly noticed how uncomfortable my wife and I are with how quiet and self-contained he is, and he set up a situation in which we wouldn't bother him to be more self-revealing. We all got to work on this tension in our relationship. Afterwards he was cuddly, and we had some closer time than we have had in a while.

This seems like such a simple tool: choose a period of time when you can actually pay attention; make an arrangement; have the other person choose the activity; follow his or her lead; end it when the time is over. It seems like an excellent way to keep relationships between people open. I have noticed a deeper appreciation of each other and a more relaxed closeness after each special time.

Recently I decided that paying attention during my son's time might be easier if I tried it for myself. I got a friend of mine to give me special time and was amazed at how starved I was for having someone's undivided attention while I did whatever I wanted. I used it to try learning new things I don't usually try to learn because of time pressure or embarrassment. I loved trying to play the piano and draw trees. I was even able to get past trying to do well enough to keep my friend's interest and began experimenting for myself. I wonder if special time might not also be of assistance to adults in recovering our creativity and ability to know what we want.


(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00