Making Sense of Time

by Linda Henry

Making Sense of Time

Julian Sookikian of Waltham, MA, started to negotiate for a later bedtime when he was barely a year and a half old.

"You can stay up ten more minutes," his father declared one night.

"No, two minutes, two minutes," Julian pleaded.

His dad smiled and agreed. Those 2 extra minutes have evolved into about 45, but Julian still calls this time his "two minutes," even now that he’s 8 and knows it lasts longer than that.

"Children understand chunks of time before they understand hours, minutes, and seconds," says Susan Graham, former director of education for "Although the passage of time is easy to grasp  — it takes time to tie a shoe, eat a meal, play a game  — telling time is very abstract. Most kids don’t get it until they’re six or seven years old." As a result, children’s earliest understanding of time is typically grounded in regularly scheduled activities like bedtime rituals and morning routines  — not the clock ticking on the mantle (or glowing on the VCR).

Unfortunately, we parents live in a world very much ruled by minute hands and deadlines. Here, some guidelines for how and when you can help your child live in your time zone  — or at least one nearby:

Linda Henry, a frequent contributor to Parenting, wrote "Let’s Play," about the developmental importance of baby games, in the October issue.


Living in the Present

Having spent nine months in the muffled darkness of the womb, babies are born with no concept of time. At first, the only clocks they respond to are their own internal ones for hunger and needing sleep. But these are biological cycles, while the cycle of day and night that adults follow is geological. And as the parents of a newborn quickly find out, when biological needs clash with entrenched geological patterns, someone’s going to end up losing sleep.

"The most important thing is to respond to a baby’s biological needs," says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University. This is healthier for your infant than any attempt to "reset" his biological clock. "A baby must develop a sense of safety and security in the world. This means that if he’s hungry, feed him  — regardless of when it is," Billingham says.

Although by age 1, a baby has a very limited concept of night and day, many sleep experts say that parents can start to help her reset her biological clock. A 1-year-old is capable of going for eight hours without feeding, for instance, so developmentally she’s ready to get in step with geological cycles  — to sleep through the night, at least a good chunk of it. To begin the process, let her fuss for a while if she awakens at night. She may very well go back to sleep. If not, it’s okay to let her cry for a little bit before leaping to her cribside. Then increase the amount of time before you go in to her each night. This way, she’ll gradually learn that nighttime is for sleeping, not for calling for and waking up Mommy and Daddy. Typically, the crying and frequent nighttime waking will stop after a few nights or a week of this.


Understanding Routines

A toddler is old enough to experience the day as smaller units of time  — not hours or minutes but the general cycle that starts with a morning routine, family comings and goings, meals, naps, and bedtime rituals. Despite a tendency to dawdle, toddlers crave the security of a predictable routine, and you can use this natural tendency to keep everyone on schedule.

"If parents have a regular pattern  — let’s say they get up at seven o’clock, and they have breakfast prepared by seven-thirty, and everyone is packed and ready to go by eight, and they leave at eight-fifteen  — children are good at understanding and fitting into it," says Billingham.

Parents may be tempted to believe that their toddler is beginning to understand the concept of clock time because between 2 and 3 years, he acquires more words regarding time than during any other stage of development. When 5-year-old John Fenner of Minneapolis was 3, for instance, he used the phrase "a few whiles," as when asking his dad, "Can we go to the store in a few whiles?"

"If your family talks about time and uses vocabulary related to it, then your child will naturally absorb this language and begin to use it as well," says Graham. While a 3-year-old may talk about "the other day" and "tomorrow" and "last night," the occasional reference to "eleventeen o’clock" reveals the truth: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. At 3, my daughter, Grace, started to use such words as "tonight" and "yesterday," but she applied them randomly and mixed her tenses, as in "Yesterday I will not take a nap." ("Ha! Too late," I said mentally. "You can’t take it back!")

As Grace’s declaration shows, toddlers start to demand more control over their schedules. This new recalcitrance, combined with a toddler’s lack of understanding of time, makes it harder for them to get with your program. So ease transitions with a timer, whose bell clearly marks the end of one activity and the beginning of another.


Now It’s Personal

At age 4, my son, Sam, became interested in clocks. He had me cutting circles out of poster board, and he’d copy the numbers around the face. I attached movable minute and hour hands; he’d move them around and ask, "What time does it say?"

Having mastered a daily and perhaps even a weekly routine, a 4-year-old is beginning to understand that certain events occur at specific times: "At eight o’clock, I go to bed," "On Monday I go to preschool." Cognitively, however, most preschoolers aren’t able to understand the difference between one minute and five, or what it really means when we use terms like "week," "month," or "year." "I advise parents never to use a specific amount of time with young children because it’s meaningless to them," says Billingham.

This is why many parents like to use a timer to help kids adhere to schedules  — you don’t have to understand the concept to know what the ticking and the bell mean. (If you do use one as a departure-countdown device, or a "you’d better have your shoes on in three minutes" referee, be careful: It’s so accurate that you’re afforded no flexibility. "If the timer goes off before you’re ready to leave, you’ve ruined the whole point," says Billingham. "If you do a verbal countdown, you can modify as you go, which gives you far more latitude than a timer and lets you retain control.")

A preschooler’s inability to keep track of individual units of time doesn’t mean she can’t recite recent history in detail ("After we ate breakfast, we went to the store. Then we went to the park, and I played on the slide and Mom pushed me on the swing, and on the way home we saw a big dog"). Time, like everything else for a preschooler, is intensely personal, and you may be astonished at your child’s recall not only of the sequence of recent events but of their minutia as well.

So while she may not understand exactly how long a week is, she may comprehend time in terms of her own routines. When the mother of 4-year-old Mac Butcher of Brooklyn, NY, was going out of town on business, she said she’d be gone for "five bedtimes." When she returned, she found that this had made great sense to Mac. "He’d actually counted the days that way," she says.

School-age Kids

Watching the Clock

While most children aren’t ready to tell time until a year or so later, by age 5 most can learn about characteristics of the clock, the big hand and the little hand, or the numbers to the left and right of the dots on a digital display.

"You can guide the child toward understanding a certain physical event  — ‘When the big hand’s straight up and the little hand is on the nine, this is when you have to be in bed,’" says Billingham. "But don’t expect that he’ll get the larger concept of telling time."

As a first step toward that understanding, Billingham and his wife taught their own four children to read the numbers on a digital watch. Though a child can’t put these numbers in meaningful context, he’ll feel a sense of pride at being able to read the time out loud.

By first or second grade, most children can begin to figure out the complexity of a clock with hands. Don’t be concerned, however, if your 6- or 7-year-old hasn’t yet mastered the counterintuitive notion that in the adult world 6 sometimes means 30 and 3 sometimes means 15.

Time, after all, is an adult obsession. "Children are fascinated by understanding time, what it is, how it works," says Billingham. "But they’re completely uninterested in letting it control their lives." That’s a lesson many parents would do well to learn.