If you’re stuck indoors with your loved ones at the moment, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to spend quality time together – so let’s take a moment to delve into what that means.
We all know that quality time is important. But if you bring it up in conversation, you’ll soon find that people have different ideas about what this concept covers.
For example, is it quality time if you and your family are watching a movie together, and it’s so riveting that you don’t talk throughout it? What if you’re making a meal together? Are you spending quality time with your friends if you’re having a lively discussion, but you all occasionally check your smartphones?
Cracking Open a Dictionary
The definition of quality time isn’t set in stone. Let’s look at two common approaches to defining it.
According to Merriam-Webster, quality time is ‘time spent giving all of one’s attention to someone who is close (such as one’s child)’. Plenty of other resources mention that you should be giving someone your undivided or full attention – basically, the idea is that you should be 100% focused on the person you’re spending time with.
This makes quality time seem like a tough order to fill. After all, when are we ever fully focused on something? We multitask at work, we put a podcast on when we exercise, we never stop thinking about one problem while working on another.
It is appealing to imagine that we can put our multitasking habit aside when spending time with a loved one. But things don’t always work out that way in practice.
Happily, there’s also a more forgiving definition we can reach for. In Macmillan Dictionary, the focus is on the goal instead: ‘time that you spend with someone, usually your partner or child, doing enjoyable things together so that your relationship remains strong’.
This approach explains why you’re spending time together in the first place. Also, it emphasizes that quality time should be fun! It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking, gardening, or walking the dog together, as long as you’re all enjoying yourselves.
Quantity vs. Quality
These definitions highlight a point of tension that many people experience.
We want to give our loved ones as much of our attention as possible. At the same time, we have a limited amount of free time and our focus is often splintered.
This can cause feelings of failure or frustration. It can feel like you’re messing up whatever you decide to do.
For example, say you want to spend quality time with your children, but you also need to get a bunch of chores done at home. If you try to do both at the same time, you’re giving your kids only a part of your attention. But if you do one and then the other, the amount of time you can offer them decreases.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this dilemma. We can’t say with certainty that it’s better to offer 30 minutes of absolute focus than three hours of distracted hanging out. We also can’t say the opposite.
So instead of definitively choosing quality over quantity – or vice versa – we should think about the purpose that quality time serves.
The Gift of Attention – Quality Time as a Love Language
The way we use ‘quality time’ dates back to the seventies and it was initially tied to discussions of parenting.
But today, the idea usually comes up when talking about the “five love languages” of relationships. In his very successful self-help book from 1992, pastor Gary Chapman explained that (marital and other) disagreements often come down to the fact that people express love in different ways.
For example, you may consider verbal expressions of love to be very important – but your partner might think that the best way to show love is to do things for you. If you don’t recognize each other’s love language, you may misunderstand each other and you’ll both feel unappreciated.
Chapman says that quality time is a love language. He says: “Quality time is giving someone your undivided attention. I don’t mean sitting on the couch watching television. I mean sitting on the couch with the TV off, looking at each other and talking, and giving each other your undivided attention. For some people, quality time is their primary love language, and if you don’t give them quality time, they will not feel loved.”
To show this kind of attention, Chapman recommends:
- Looking the other person in the eye
- Putting away your phone or other distractions
- Never interrupting them as they talk
- Having heartfelt conversations
- Sharing activities that let you keep engaging with each other, such as playing tennis together
Now, Chapman’s approach may be too inflexible for some relationships. But there’s a very important takeaway here: you should think about the OTHER person’s feelings on quality time.
Whether or not it’s their primary language of love (and whether or not you like Chapman’s approach at all), you should consider what the other person thinks about the time you spend together.
It might be just fine to ‘sit on the couch watching television’ – as long as your loved one agrees that this is a fun and valuable way to spend time with you. It might be fine to interrupt them as they talk, as long as they see it as an expression of attention rather than boredom.
And this gives us a simple answer to the Smartphone Question too.
If the person you’re spending time with really doesn’t mind, it’s fine to check your notifications a couple of times while you’re together. But for some people, checking your phone will come across as an expression of disinterest.
It’s very important to find out what your loved one thinks about the matter, and then you can modify your behavior accordingly.
Think of it this way – your time is a gift, and no gift needs to be flawless. What matters is that it’s specifically chosen to fit the recipient’s taste and needs.
The Different Qualities of Time
We’ve seen that quality time is a gift, a gesture of affection. But it serves other purposes as well.
There is a fascinating anthropological study published in 2002 in Children & Society. The researcher, Dr. Haudrup Christensen, interviewed a number of school-aged children about what quality time and family time meant to them.
Interestingly, most of them didn’t want their parents to spend more time with them in terms of quantity. Some said that they wished their parents gave them more attention. Most of the children agreed that spending time with family was pleasant.
But in deeper conversation, it turned out that time spent with family was important for other reasons.
It provides kids with:
1. A sense of routine
We already know that family rituals are important and that kids appreciate a sense of normalcy and repetition. But the same is true in romantic relationships, and even in friendships. We rely on each other to achieve stability and to set up a rhythm of habits, chores, hobbies, etc.
Perhaps you can put aside your worries about quality time for a moment, and ask instead – does the time we spend together help us structure our lives? If not, should you change something in order to provide more stability?
2. The feeling that somebody cares
If you have a school-aged kid or a teenager, you know they don’t open up on demand. You can sit them down and ask them to tell you what they’re feeling… and you’ll get a non-committal response. They will talk to you when they’re ready, and that might just be in the middle of you doing something else.
Careful scheduling isn’t always useful when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, people need to know you’re willing to drop everything and just listen.
This applies to more than just children – if your spouse comes home from a horrible day at work, and they want a listening ear, they won’t appreciate you telling them to wait for your scheduled quality conversation three hours later.
3. The ability to control their own time
Children in this study revealed that it’s important to them to have a say in how they spend their time. It is equally important for them to get some privacy and spend time alone on occasion.
When giving someone the gift of quality time, we also give them an opportunity to do what they enjoy. Some people like the chance to plan activities you can do together (even young kids enjoy taking part in the planning process). Others like it when you make things easy for them – take things into your own hands and plan a weekend where they can enjoy their hobbies. Or simply provide them with some peace and quiet when they need it.
There Is No Perfect Moment!
Every relationship is different. That means that there’s no one single good way to spend quality time together.
The best way to go is to grab every opportunity to spend time with the people you love. Sometimes, this means taking part in activities as a team. Sometimes, you just need to remain open and attentive, trusting that everything will work out.
- Quality Time and Why It Matters to Kids
- Understanding the Five Love Languages
- A Counterargument: the Myth of Quality Time