Normally when I come home from work, my 2-year-old son greets me at the door with a huge hug. As I scoop him up in my arms, the joy on his face melts away the toils of the day.

But one night Isaac wasn’t waiting at the door. I found him sitting quietly in a corner of his room. He refused to respond when I spoke to him, and when I tried to give him a hug he answered with a fist. What happened to the little boy with the playful smile?

My wife, Emily, and I spent time talking and praying about it and concluded that Isaac was acting out because he misses me. It’s hard for him when I re-enter his world after being gone all day. He might not be able to verbalize his feelings, but his actions speak louder than words.

When I spend time with Isaac, he thrives; he loves it when I play with him. In fact, most children perceive love based on quality and quantity time. But finding large chunks of time is difficult, so being intentional with the time we do have is key.

Through trial and error, and the suggestions of others, I found eight ways to intentionally spend time with my toddler (even if he can’t verbalize how much he appreciates it):

1. Bath time.

It’s a fact of life, kids need baths. Rather than letting this duty fall to mom by default, why not use it as a time for father and child? I’ve convinced Isaac over the last year that I am way better at getting the shampoo out of his hair instead of in his eyes than what Emily could ever do. It’s kind of a running joke in our family, but it keeps me looking forward to this special time with him.

2. Get down on the floor and play.

It is so much easier to sit on the couch reading a magazine or watching TV when you get home from work than it is to engage with a young child. I get it, I’ve been there. But it’s also a great time to get down on your hands and knees and enter the world of your little man or girl. Young kids love when we come down to their level. This may mean wrestling, playing with a train set, or just spreading your arms out and flying around the house. Just get down on the floor and see what happens.

3. Eat dinner as a family.

In our fast-paced culture, it seems foreign that both mom and dad and all the kids would actually be able to eat dinner together. This is one of my fondest memories from my childhood. Even if it is not always possible, strive to make dinner as a family the norm.

4. Read a book.

Kids develop a love for books at an early age. I am convinced that how they feel about books later as teens is a direct result of the attitude of their parents during the toddler and preschool years. Reading books with my son is not my natural favorite thing to do, but I have found that when I take the opportunity to read with him, it is usually the best part of my day.

5. Go for ice cream.

Every once in a while after dinner I will slip out for ice cream with Isaac. Include the whole family if you like, but it is a really special time when you take your kids one-on-one.

6. Go outside to play.

The options are endless, yet many of us dads don’t take the opportunity to play outside with our kids. Sandboxes, balls, running through the grass, looking for sticks, chasing squirrels, and going to the park can all be great activities. Don’t be so serious; let yourself loosen up a bit.

7. Run errands.

I like to use errands as a way to spend time with my son. If I have an activity I can push until later in the day or on the weekend, I will take him with me. If Emily asks me to run to the grocery store, why not take Isaac with me? This gives her some peace and quiet but also gives me much needed time alone with my son. I have heard more seasoned parents say that some of the best conversation opportunities they have with their kids happen during car rides. So leave the radio off and just see what happens.

8. Pray.

We can be great playmates for young kids, but more importantly we need to model spiritual disciplines. Prayer at meals is an excellent opportunity to teach them to pray in front of others, even if it is only a few unintelligible words. Once after spending a week with grandparents, Isaac prayed that Mommy and Daddy would drive home safely. We were sitting right there at the table with him, but it was precious. Bed time prayers are also very important. Don’t just go through the motions. Teach your kids to kneel beside their bed. Ask them what is going on in their world that they want to pray about. One night we ended up thanking God for all the baboons and jaguars in the world (don’t ask).

The point is that even young kids need time with dad. They need to learn from us. They need to grow with us. It is not always easy and we are usually exhausted, but it is so important to give that little bit of extra energy to enter their world.

What are some things you can do to intentionally spend time with your young kids?

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