Big time

Mastering time gives kids a sense of control and a feeling of security.

By June Solnit Sale, Kit Kollenberg and Ellen Melinkoff

Former editors of the UCLA Working Parents Newsletter and the authors of The Working Parents Handbook (Fireside, 1996).

A child’s sense of time is very different from that of an adult. An hour, a day and a week are concrete concepts to adults but unfathomable abstracts to young children. Children, especially pre-clock-readers, exist in the present. They are not as comforted by the thought that a dental appointment will last only a half-hour. Adults can think beyond the dentist, beyond the half-hour, to what comes next. Children are lost in the stress of a dental appointment as they are in the joy of a computer game. Time is unrelated to the activity.

Even after learning to tell time, ten minutes can feel much longer to a child than it is. Ten minutes waiting for a bus seems much longer than ten minutes playing ball. The same holds true for adults, but adults know that there is often a difference in how long time feels like it is passing and how long it actually does pass. To a child, who operates strictly by feel, this makes no sense.

How to make time 'real'

Before children understand time in minutes and hours, they keep track of time by thinking from event to event. Time is irrelevant when they live by a predictable sequence of events: sandbox, story time, juice, games, lunch, nap. Even as children begin grade school, they may be more aware that recess comes after reading than that it begins at 10:15.

To help your child begin to develop a sense of time, set ten-minute increments for her to accomplish the tasks of her daily routine. Slowly, after many mornings of ten-minute warnings, she will start to get the rhythm of what ten minutes means by knowing what she has been able to accomplish within that time period.

Gaining a sense of time gives children a sense of control in their lives and helps them learn organization. Successful people manage their time well, so helping your child gain an understanding of time is an essential part of parenting.