My eight-year-old daughter and I had scheduled a shopping trip to buy her new shoes and a coat. To me, it was a routine outing. But when bad weather canceled our plans, she was quite disappointed. ''I was looking forward to it,'' she told me, ''because lately, you and I haven't gone anywhere together - alone.''
She was right. Our recent excursions almost always involved the whole family, or at least an extra sibling or two. And while there's nothing wrong with family togetherness, I was reminded again of how important it is to spend individual time with each child.
In a one- or two-child family, this is not a big problem. But parents of three or more need to be aware of their children's desire for occasional one-to-one attention. In these settings, a youngster need not compete with other siblings or deal with parental distractions. He can bask in the limelight of Mom or Dad's individual interest, ask all the questions he likes, and reassure himself, once again, that he is loved and valued.
And special just-you-and-me moments need not involve expensive outings or all-day affairs either.
For instance, my husband is an early riser and so is our daughter. Last summer they bought a bird feeder for our yard and spent many companionable hours watching the cardinals and blue jays and talking quietly. Our daughter cherished these early morning episodes, knowing that because the rest of us were sleepyheads, she would have Daddy all to herself.
Because my husband is a nature lover, he also devised simple trips for himself and one child to feed ducks at a nearby nature center, climb a hill, or walk around a frozen lake in the midst of winter. Personal conversations flourished in such relaxed settings, and father and child always grew closer together.
I looked for similar opportunities. Often I would take just one child on a special excursion, leaving the rest with a neighbor (when it was her turn, I did the baby-sitting). One son was a movie buff, another liked to go out for ice cream. When the children needed new clothes, I tried to shop on an individual basis, taking the child out to lunch when fitting chores were done. Once my 12 -year-old and I spent an entire afternoon painting his bedroom together. On another evening his younger brother and I made a Pinewood Derby car for his Cub Scout project.
The car didn't win the competition, but the time we shared was worth more than any trophy.
None of these occasions were particularly dramatic, but they did provide a precious opportunity for individual attention and uninterrupted conversation. And I suspect they meant a great deal to the children. My eldest, now a college graduate, still enjoys an occasional after-dinner walk with me. We did it so often when he was little that it has become a comfortable custom.
If parental time is exceedingly limited, sometimes other adults can partially fill the attention gap. One of our ''middle kids'' loved staying overnight at his grandparents' house, where he could make popcorn (without having to share it with anyone), play checkers with Grandpa, and chat with Grandma to his heart's content. He basked in their interest and always returned home in a relaxed and contented mood.
Youngsters do grow, but their desire for our undivided attention never wanes.