I guess I am becoming somewhat of an expert on the donut date. I regularly took my children out on donut dates, have written two journals for donut dates, and (at conferences) people love telling me their donut date stories.

I truly believe that a donut date might give some of the best return on the investment of time of anything we do as parents. Other regular activities that produce significant results would include regular church attendance at a healthy church, regular meals together, and regular conversations about Jesus. But for the amount of money and time (five dollars and one hour a week) a donut date gives a high ROI.

With those thoughts in mind, I would like to suggest nine elements of an effective donut date.* Now the asterisk means my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek. There is no one way to do it right. But I do want to argue for some of the things below.

1. Create a schedule you can sustain. I started taking my children out for several reasons. We had four children with two years between each one. Our home was structured bedlam at times. In addition, I was a busy pastor with many urgent needs pulling at me. It would have been easy to push out the important but nonurgent needs of my children.

One way I chose to stay connected with my children was to put something in my schedule that I could sustain for the long haul. I ended up settling on one morning a week. In addition, summer schedules brought its own challenges so I would often start back up with the new school year. Taking our children out when they are young creates a bond and relational ballast that will help us navigate the teen years. Taking them out in the teen years creates a space to talk about deeper issues.

2. Take one child out. If the purpose is to ask questions and connect to the heart of my child, then I should take them out one at a time. Taking the whole gang out certainly creates a fun memory but it doesn’t allow me to connect one-to-one.

When you combine this with the first suggestion, you see that I might only take out each child once a month. I was certainly not doing four dates a week. That was not sustainable! And I did not have to keep track of whose turn it was. They knew!

I believe nothing can replace that one-on-one time when you are looking your child in the eyes and connecting to the heart.

3. Communicate affection.  Your eyes, your smile, your voice all communicate your feelings. Are you just doing this because this is what good parents do? Or are you doing this because you delight in your child? You have in front of you a precious eternal soul that God has entrusted for a short season. You only have a short while to connect with them. You are like your heavenly Father when that child feels that you delight in them (Zephaniah 3:17). Communicate that hanging out with them brings great delight to your soul.

4. Put your phone away. I shouldn’t have to say it but I do. Parents, put away the distractions. This next hour with your child is going to communicate volumes to them. I once saw a young father out with his daughter for breakfast. I thought to myself, “Yes, you get it.” But then as his 8 year old ate her breakfast, he was on his phone. There was silence at the table. And I thought, “So close and yet still so far.”

5. Ask questions. This is your chance to ask questions. You have created a “safe space” to talk about deeper things. If you have difficulty with questions, prepare ahead of time. Or purchase The Donut Date Journal. I have included over 70 questions to ask. Proverbs 20:5 tells us that the purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters but a man or woman of understanding draws them out.

6. Write down their answers (if they are young). Or listen attentively. More and more I am convinced of how important this is. As a young dad I wrote down their answers to questions in a journal. The original reason was so that I could see how their answers changed over time and have a journal for them. Later I came to realize that the writing actually communicates my profound interest in their answers. What they had to say was so important I was taking notes! Later in the teen years, I dropped the journal. But I used a napkin to either draw pictures, record what we talked about, or record prayer requests.

7. Ask follow-up questions. The original question is just the starter. Growing as a communicator means I grow as a questioner. Questions can be “extensive” – meaning lots of subjects. Questions can also be “intensive” – meaning I delve down deeper into the same subject. I not only want to know the answers I want to know how they arrived at their thoughts. For older children you might say things like, “Tell me more,” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “What is your thinking on this?”

8. Start where you are. Maybe you have older children and regret not starting earlier. Start where you are now. You may not be able to go as deep but you can still get to know them. Take them out to dinner. Resolve just to ask questions to really, really get to know them. I am finding that the temptation to lecture is not receding with age. If anything, it is increasing. But their influences are deeper. I want to understand that heart level with increasing sophistication.

9. Repeat 1-8. Finally, keep going. Keep starting. This is part of long-term discipleship. There will be some dates where the conversation is not deep. There will be some dates where you are tired. There will be schedule interruptions. Those things are going to happen. But deep happens because consistent happens.

Paul says that he “exhorted each one of you” (1 Thes 2:12). His ministry was both public and personal. Ours should be the same. And amidst all the pressures and distractions of the day, a regularly scheduled date is one way to stay connected.