My twin daughters, like most kids, have zero concept of time. I envy their ability to stop and savor life at their own pace — to be totally within the moment, and to not let worry of the future cloud the joys of the present. I admit, I need more of this in my own life (and I’ve spent countless hours with meditation apps trying vainly to achieve it). I also need them to hurry up and finish their breakfast before I lose my goddamned mind.
We’re currently in our second year of preschool, meaning we’ve spent hundreds of mornings discussing the importance of finishing breakfast on schedule, leaving us just enough time to pick out clothes, reject those clothes, debate whether they can just wear their Elsa costumes, demand an old pair of shoes we threw out last summer, grieve for a bit, say good-bye to all of their toys like they’re heading off to war, then, finally, get in the car. If anything throws off this timetable — like, say, taking 45 minutes to eat a bowl of Froot Loops — then we’ll be late. They’ll miss out on their morning playground time, while mom and dad will lose some of the few precious hours we have in which to work, exercise, and write passive-aggressive articles about them. This is a logically sound argument, delivered calmly and without judgment. And, like all appeals to a 4-year-old’s sense of reason, it fails spectacularly. My kids are natural-born dawdlers. Time means nothing to them.
After months of breakfasts ending in frustration, yelling, and tears, we discovered the Time Timer, a 60-minute timer with a visible red disk that slowly disappears as time runs out. We’d tried timers before, of course — our phones, Alexa, even an old analog egg timer. But especially for kids who haven’t quite grasped numbers yet, that’s all just some confusing pantomime before grown-ups cruelly snatch their food away. With the Time Timer, time is no longer just some abstraction that’s arbitrarily measured out by adults and robots, and safely ignored. They can see it now. Like nothing else, watching that red circle shrink into ever-smaller slices motivates my kids to finish before it’s gone.
When time’s up, the clock simply emits a few beeps I would classify as “pleasant,” although this feature can also be muted. We almost never make it anyway. By the time the disk has waned into a two-minute sliver, my kids’ innate competitiveness kicks in, and they’ll race to see who can beat the clock.
It’s proved so effective, we’ve incorporated it into just about anything where time is a factor, from counting down those agonizing minutes of enriching free play until they’re allowed to watch more My Little Pony, to letting our little hedonists know that bath time is nearly over. (Our version is protected by a removable silicone cover, allowing us to feel safe with putting it just about anywhere.) Even I’ve found it useful: I wrote this whole piece with it sitting here on my desk, its dwindling red disk creating a sense of urgency and focus that, unfortunately, just doesn’t seem to be in my DNA.