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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Create family landmarks in time

Benjamin Garber

Apparently, if E equals MC squared, then an astronaut traveling close to the speed of light would return from a 100-year voyage just a minute or two older than when he or she left, even though his great-grandchildren would be there to greet him upon his return.

How Einstein figured this out and what it really means is far beyond my grasp, until you bring the concept down to Earth.

Our experience of the passage of time differs as a function of age. One year is a full 20 percent of a 5-year-old’s life, but only a 20th or 30th (or 50th?) of ours.

This is like the difference between finding a boulder or a pebble in the road. An empty afternoon seems like a huge and insurmountable boulder to your 8-year-old, but an insignificant pebble – easily overlooked and quickly forgotten – to you and I.

I know these things because I’m shocked to see that the calendar already reads May, that the children I enrolled in preschool just yesterday are suddenly graduating from college, and because those once impossibly distant and morbid concerns about retirement and old age and wills and such are now part of my day-to-day reality. AARP has me on speed dial.

Where did the time go?

We can’t change the basic physics of time here on Earth any more than the astronaut can change Einstein’s laws of relativity. But as parents, we must do everything possible to not let too much time slip away like that pebble in the road. As parents, we have a responsibility not only to help our kids make sense out of the passage of time from one day to the next, but also on a grander scale.

Marking the passage of days is as simple as it is obvious and easily overlooked. Because we grasp the essential idea of clock time and calendar time, we seldom think to mark time for our kids until the kindergarten teacher sends home a worksheet with a bunch of antiquated analog clock faces that need hands colored in.

True, clocks with hands are less accurate and more cumbersome than the digital displays that cover almost every surface in our modern world, but the physical tick-tick-tick movement of the hands teaches young children a unique lesson: Analog clock faces make the passage of time a concrete and visible thing.

Whether the goal is to help a child tolerate a car ride, contain his excitement in advance of an event or just to comply with a timeout, marking the time on the face of a clock with hands makes it easier. He can watch the hand move and, in that way, he can understand how much time remains.

Marking the passage of days is just as easy. Most children don’t really grasp the idea of a week before kindergarten (even if they can recite the days in order). But even long after a child grasps the essentials of calendar time, marking the passage of days on a large wall calendar will help make the world predictable.

Get in the habit of putting significant events on the family calendar. Use icons and stickers for younger children. Make part of the suppertime ritual crossing off the day just passed and planning for the day to come.

(Be careful not to do this at bedtime in case planning ahead either excites or scares a child and disrupts sleep.)

Here it is the beginning of May. Every child is beginning to anticipate big events and scary changes ahead. It’s time to set up the family calendar so that the end of school, summer vacations, camps and trips can be planned for.

When is graduation? When is Grandma coming to visit? By making these events predictable – and better yet, by involving your kids in establishing and maintaining the family calendar – you’re making transitions easier, defusing the “I didn’t know that was today!” upsets and generally helping to quell anxiety.

But above and beyond these simple, practical remedies is our larger problem as parents. Every moment with our kids is precious and they all disappear so quickly. We can make choices to slow down our subjective experience of time and to keep memories fresh and, in so doing, we can teach our kids how to do the same as their subjective clocks speed up with age.

Slow down time? Einstein would roll over in his grave at the thought, but it can be done. The solution has nothing to do with spaceships or particle accelerators or quantum mechanics. It has to do with landmarks.

A landmark in time occurs when everyone intentionally stops moving forward long enough to exhale and be in that moment. These landmarks are thrust upon us when trauma occurs. Chances are you know where you were when the twin towers fell on 9/11. If you’re old enough, you know where you were when Kennedy was shot.

Certainly, you recognized that time stopped when your first child was born. If you’ve ever been in a bad car accident or experienced some other intense trauma, you know that the clocked stopped ticking.

Time takes on a childlike slowness at these times, as if all of your senses are tuned in intensely, struggling to grasp the event, until time gradually resumes its former breakneck pace.

Of course, I hope you never experience trauma, but you can purposely create landmarks in time that serve the same purpose. Moments when everyone stops to exhale, when all of our senses are there, in the moment, without a thought about what happens next or if the game has started yet or what’s waiting on your desk tomorrow or what retirement might someday be like.

Take a group photo. Those candid, spontaneous pictures are fun, but they aren’t necessarily landmarks. The clock keeps ticking. Instead, get everyone to be in the photo. The pose and the place don’t matter. It can be as formal or as silly as you like. You can stop the clock and create a landmark in time when everyone shares that brief exhale while the shutter clicks and then later, looking back at the image, remarking on that one moment you all shared.

Create something together. It doesn’t matter what. Get everyone involved. Make a castle out of a refrigerator box for the little ones. Make a collage on a rainy afternoon out of old magazine images. Put together a jigsaw puzzle. Paint a rock in the backyard.

Whatever it is, share the activity so that you share a family landmark in time.

Write yourself a letter or – better yet – get everyone to contribute to a shared letter from our family to our family. It doesn’t matter what you write, only that you all do it together. Then seal the letter and today’s newspaper and some trinkets in a time capsule. An empty, dry bottled water container works well. Bury it in the backyard or build it into a wall in the new addition.

Later, looking back, instead of barely remembering the rush of time past, landmarks such as these stand out like pearls on a string of time, breaking up the blur into memorable moments that the family shares so that your life together takes on a new and richer meaning.

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a child psychologist in Merrimack. To order his latest book, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle,” or to reach him with comments and questions, call 879-9100 or visit www.healthyparent.com. Copyright 2012 Benjamin Garber, all rights reserved.