The most precious gift we can give is our time.

G rowing up, I can remember repeated references to the concept of “quality time.” My understanding is that the phrase was coined in the 70’s to reference the notion of giving one’s undivided attention to loved ones or even oneself in focused moments as opposed to simply showing up and potentially not being fully present in the moment. The concept of quality time became particularly applicable to parents as the norm in our culture became families with two working parents and the divorce rate climbed. In this era, quality time came to be synonymous with creating special, memorable moments with children with whom we had limited time to spend. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that big gifts, big parties, big trips, or some other special acknowledgement became a substitute for our time and presence.

Forgive the idiom, but I think we were sold a bill of goods. After almost 30 years with my wife, raising four children, chasing the idols of career, money, and stuff and watching my children begin to have children, I’m convinced that quality time is a poor substitute for quantity time. Relationships are defined by time and experience. Like water carving a valley, we shape, influence, and affect one another in small ways over time. It is a collection of many moments that define the nature of our relationships and you cannot buy closeness, connection, understanding, insight, credibility, empathy, love or anything else you value in a relationship with anything but the time you invest in it.

My wife, Sally, often references her years of car pool in an almost sacred tone. Yes, I’m referencing the daily chore of getting four kids loaded up and driving them 20 minutes in morning traffic to wait in a line of mini-vans and drop them off. Then, about seven hours later, returning to repeat the process at the end of the day. For her, these moments were sacrosanct; special times when the small nothings of the day emerged. Spontaneous conversations sprang to life and turned in unexpected directions with little prodding and no script. Books were read, stories told, and the day’s events connected all in the car in the bond of giving and receiving – listening and telling. Five days a week from August until May: there is no substitute for that time.

As I watch my oldest daughter with her 8 month old son, I see the influence of her mother. She has created a life in which she is able to devote a tremendous amount of her time to her family. At 23 years old, she is a young mom and wife but displays a steady confidence in her role, her aspirations, and her priorities. For her, it is all about the quantity. Moments that will not come around again. She chooses to invest herself in the smallest of things and, over time, these will reap the largest of rewards for her and those around her. Not money or things, but in memories, influence, and connection.

In the office and at home, I often talk about “showing up.” (The Power of Showing Up) The most precious gift we can give is our time. How we spend it reflects our priorities. We know it and those around us know it. When we show up for someone, we are signalling that priority. We are acknowledging the importance of the person, the moment, and the relationship. No, we can’t show up for everyone all the time and that’s OK. We just need to remember that every time we do show up, we are making an investment and sending a message: you are important to me. Frequency matters.

By all means, create special moments. Quality time is a great thing as it relates to the experiential side of life. If you can take vacations, throw parties, and foster special moments, do it. But don’t be fooled into believing the lie that they serve as a replacement for the quantity moments.