Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Distracted Parenting

Dr. Neal Halfon, a physician who directs the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families, and Communities, refers to “parental benign neglect.” One example involved an 18-month-old and his parents:
“‘Their son seemed happy, active and engaged, clearly enjoying time and pizza with his parents. … At the end of dinner, Mom got up to run an errand, handing over care to Dad.’
“Dad … started reading phone messages while the toddler struggled to get his attention by throwing bits of pizza crust. Then the dad re-engaged, facing his child and playing with him. Soon, though, he substituted watching a video on his phone with the toddler until his wife returned.
“… [Dr.] Halfon observed a dimming of the child’s internal light, a lessening of the connection between parent and child.”5
-from a talk by Rosemary M. Wixom called The Words We Speak

I've been thinking so much lately about the benefits of growing up in certain generations.  We received a Newsweek magazine recently that outlined them each generation from the 1900's up-the Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc.  I don't know if I "believe" the little parcels of traits they tuck us all into, but I do notice and worry (because that's what mothers do best) about some of the drawbacks of being a child today.  I know my children are so lucky in so many ways, but I also know that as a mom, I can be so much more distracted and busy if I don't make a deliberate effort to be present, in the moment, with my children.

I am old enough to remember a time as a mother when there were no cell phones, when a computer wasn't a necessary addition to the household.  I know things have changed attention-wise because of all this technology at our fingertips.  If I go back far enough, I remember being raised with a phone that was attached to the wall.   Which meant if my mom needed to talk to someone, the only multi-tasking she could be doing was within 3 feet of the outer wall of our kitchen.  Do you know what that meant?  With five children, there wasn't a lot of multi-tasking while on the phone!  Phone calls were generally quick, and had a purpose.  Even if "catching up" was the purpose, we knew that we had to wait 5 or 10 minutes, quietly, and my mom would be "back".

There are plenty of good things that technology brings us moms-things that make our life easier, but I can't help but want to flip some of what we might think and are told are "benefits" and examine them for what they really are most of the time-distractions, causes of frenetic busy-ness, breaks in concentration, information overload in our brains and most of all, a tendency to not be present for many little minutes that add up quickly in our children's eyes.

Have you ever been talking to someone who you can tell is thinking about the text they just received or sent?  Or having a conversation or meal with someone who is constantly answering their cell phone?  We all know it's rude, but how often do we do this to our children-sometimes they don't have the words to say, "Mom, please look at me!  Mom, please pay attention?  Mom, are you listening?"

When I read the little excerpt from the talk above, the words "dimming of the child's internal light" really struck me hard.  How often does that little light dim?  How long till that light goes out because children give up fighting for our attention?  How often are we distracted and pulled in different, more trivial directions, when we should be focusing our attention on our children?

I was at an indoor soccer game with Patrick this winter...a little league that I usually would pass over, but I knew this little boy needed to get out and run once a week.  The first time I went I sat and watched him play-he was so darn cute, and he said to me before, "Mom, watch me, and cheer me on OK?"  He reminded me so much of Isaac, 13 years ago, at that very same age-a smile on his face, having the time of his life.  I noticed so many little things that made me hunt for a tissue in my pocket-this sweet sweet little boy and all his nuances that only a mother would see.  I've said it a million times before-they will be gone before you know it and there are no do-overs.

When I happened to glance around at the other parents way more than half of them were on their phones.  It made me so sad-these kids KNOW you are here, they want you to watch them, they ARE looking for you, and in that moment they look up, do you want them to see you on some dumb phone? What conversation/game/internet search could be important enough?  Do you all realize how fast time flies?  Don't you want to imprint that sweet little face in your memory forever?

But the next time I took Patrick, Abbey was driving to a lacrosse game in a neighboring town-she texted me to ask me how to get there.  Matthew was home alone and had a question about something and called.  Isaac texted me from school to ask about plans for coming home for the weekend.  If I had walked in on myself during that soccer session, I would have been just as guilty of that inattention as the group of parents last week.

It made me think of how often we are pulled away from our children-sometimes for good reasons, but those reasons wouldn't have even existed 20 years ago.  If I didn't have a cell phone, Abbey would have had to ask me the night before, or called a friend, Matthew would have figured out the answer to his question on his own, or would not have been home alone because he couldn't contact me, and I would have had one weekly phone call (remember when dorms had one phone everyone had to share out in the hall?) and we would have talked about it then-definite plans would have been made and settled without little tidbits of communication back and forth.  I see pre-planning, the development of independence and good decision making...benefits to being un-plugged and un-available.

I can make up (I'm sure we all can) hundreds of excuses for our inattention, but I am trying to decipher, more than ever, if any of them are valid.  I think we as parents must really really flip these excuses over and examine them for what they really are-mostly excuses.

I do know this.  Kids behave better when they get our attention.  Kids pay better attention themselves, when they get attention.  If you want kids to listen to you, listen to them. All kids want to be good.  They don't want to be treated like pests.  They don't want to feel less important than some device in our hand or some keyboard or screen.  Kids don't need to be the center of our world and feel it all revolves around them, but they do need to feel that they are just as important as anything else in our lives.  

The way you show someone they are important is too look them in the eye and pay attention...everyone knows, even the littlest child, when we are truly present.

52 comments :

  1. Oh boy Sarah...I needed this one too.
    It is so easy to be distracted by my phone.
    I love this post and will be printing it out to read again.
    Love your wisdom.

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  2. I think there have always been distractions. I'm not discounting the fact that we have far more than past generations, but I remember my Mother on the phone A LOT growing up. She also read books A LOT and was very busy in other ways. I think we are the first generation that has to deal with the digital distractions and so we do need to figure them out, but it wasn't as if our Mother's didn't get distracted either.

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  3. Great thoughts on this topic. I loved the talk by Sister Wixom.

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  4. Great thoughts on this topic. I loved the talk by Sister Wixom.

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  5. Great post. I often defend modern luxuries to my husband as he really despises all things technical and what our lives have become. Your soccer example really hit home with me and I will make an effort to remember that often. Thanks!

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  6. Great post ....and so true; your soccer post hit home;the other day my son was excited because a couple of friends came over for a play-date and he is thanking me for it, I told him you are very lucky we didn't have play dates when I was 11...he asked what did you do I said we went outside and played. One part of your blog concerned me was that with everyone texting,checking email, posting on facebook have we lost the ability to say "are you listening to me?" Can our kids; rather do our kids know they can or should ask for the attention?" Thank you Sarah

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  7. You hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks for this. I know I could use this reminder every day, and appreciate you bringing it to light. You are exactly right!

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  8. Oh man, something I battle with too, but you know I always love your insights. Eye contact~ So true...
    The struggle for our generations is having too much: too many choices, too many distractions, too much information, too many good things to choose from that sometimes the most essential things get left behind~this is another great one: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/good-better-best?lang=eng

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  9. Wonderful post! I struggle with technology mostly for this reason. There is a lot in here...we are kindred spirits, Sarah. Thank you for sending these powerful reminders and messages. They are needed.

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  10. Beautiful. You might like the blog hands free mama. http://www.handsfreemama.com/about-hands-free/

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  11. boom. so much wisdom. but i hear cheryl's comment, too. my mom had a phone with the cord that was 50ft long and could reach anywhere in the entire house. she rocked that thing on her ear for an hour at a time!

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  12. I love this with the flames of 1000 burning suns. Does that even make sense?? I don't care...that's how I feel. I'm so tired of seeing people with their phones out all the time....at family dinners, during meetings, sporting events, CHURCH! I get that there are times when someone needs to be able to contact you but the vast majority of people I see are looking at Facebook, checking texts (incessantly), chekcing instagram, etc. PUT IT DOWN.

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  13. Oh yes, even Billy, at 13, still asks us to watch us. "Watch me hit in the back yard....did you see me bat?..." It's so important. And those darn cell phones. I can't tell you how many disruptions it has called. I contend that at times I am nothing more than a air traffic controller. I have given directions to the girls, looked up pin numbers for my son....wow, it's amazing we even grew up without cell phones! We organized nights out, college road trips - you name it - with only letters and long-distance phone calls!

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  14. Spot on; well said and much needed. Mary Brooke (it saddens me that the parents can't just sit and relate or have fellowship when out and waiting on our children)

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  15. I do agree with this and need the reminder plenty of times!! Two flip-sides I think that come into play, just to keep in mind...

    1. As a working mother, that technology actually allows me to be MORE present with my kids sometimes. I have a great flexible job, and I can very often sneak away to have lunch with one of my kids at school or go on a field trip with them or be home early to help them with a project or play with them - as long as I keep an eye on my email. I'm not glued to my phone, but I need to deal with it every once in a while. But my kids think it's pretty darn special when I go eat with them - something I've learned I do more often than a lot of the stay at home moms - and the phone is the price for that. (If it weren't me working, it would be my husband, and the same thing would probably apply - that technology might allow him to be away from the office and with the kids more often too).

    2. More importantly, to me, I think a little neglect isn't a bad thing. At least when/where I was growing up, we were MUCH more "neglected" than kids these days. What I mean is, when I go to the playground (which is across the street from our house, so we go all the time), I usually park myself on the park bench and read a book while my kids run around. Usually the first five minutes they are wanting me to push them on the swings or do something with them, but after I don't, they run off and make new friends or just entertain themselves. The park is big, and they run off and climb trees or play games with rocks and sticks or hide and seek, or...whatever, I don't really know what all they do, because I'm "neglecting" them. When I was a kid, my parents threw us outside and told us to come back at dinnertime. They weren't on the computer (my dad was actually inside writing his dissertation on a typewriter ha!) or a cell phone, but they had other distractions - like books or TV or getting things done around the house. I find the times that my kids are "bored" and I make them go figure out how to entertain themselves, they play the best games and get along with each other best. That is not to say that I don't play with my kids, because I DO. And Saturday mornings we walk to the farmer's market and sit together at eat chocolate croissants and have the best conversations. And at night before bed we lay there and read books and talk. We eat dinner together almost every night. Those are all 100% cellphone-free times, always always always. When I do go to their soccer games and ballet recitals, I am paying attention to them unless there is an emergency. All that to say... I don't feel like I need to worry about dimming my child's light every time I ignore them or tell them to run off and entertain themselves while I play on my computer (or read a book or do laundry). I think there are times we absolutely must stop and give our children our undivided attention, and there are times we need them to understand we have other things we need to take care of, and other times it's just plain good for them to find a way to entertain or take care of themselves while we do whatever we want.

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  16. I agree about the distractions and I agree that kids are growing up so differently. The other day we asked the 17yr old to go somewhere (VERY CLOSE) and his response was "I can't, I don't have my gps." We explained that not only did we grow up without a gps but that I still don't know how to use one and he just stood there gawking. I appreciate that technology has brought amazing benefits, but I fear that our kids are so dependent on it that it would be incredibly difficult for them to function in the event that it wasn't available. I try and remind myself everyday "Just because we can, doesn't mean we should."

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  17. I love seeing your perspective on this topic and I agree whole-heartedly! I am as guilty as the next person and I've felt convicted while in the moment too. My son is almost 3 and has really gotten into the phase of wanting us to play with him. So I always try to play with him the first time he asks and then if I need to tend to something in the house I will go do that after we play. Sometimes though if he asks again and I'm in the middle of something I will tell him to play by himself (which he is really good at too). I think it's just that balance of giving them the attention they crave and also pushing them outside of their comfort zones. But I totally agree that if you are somewhere with one child (especially you with 6) you should give them that attention they need and want no matter what.

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  18. Well said Sarah! I just recently deleted my FB account for that very reason, it was becoming too much of a distraction and I refuse to upgrade to a smartphone because I know it will be yet another distraction (I still carry a flip-phone and only have it because I commute an hr and 15 mins to work each way, it gives me a sense of security). Thanks for the reminder, you are a gem!

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  19. Such a good blog. Thanks for making such great points. I am going to be more careful about those distractions!

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  20. Technology scares me. It really does. Im only 26 (not a parent yet) and I even feel like children are raised so differently than i was. I had a track phone when i was 16 with a certain amount of minutes that i used ONLY to call my parents when I got safely to school and when i was on my way home. Its crazy to me that young children have iphones and have access to so many harmful things.

    It also bugs me that people cant be in the moment. I ride public transportation to work and find it crazy that everyone is on an Iphone or Ipad. They cant sit still and just be alone with their thoughts for a 15 minute ride into the city. I try my best to make a conscious effort to put my phone away and read a newspaper or just people watch.

    Technology is so great but we just need to watch how we use it.

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  21. Yes, yes, yes Sarah! We were at Great Clips the other day and there was a LONG line. My boys (12 and 10) had brought books to read but my girls (8 and 6) were just looking through some hair books with me and talking. EVERY OTHER PERSON WAITING (kids and adults) were on a phone or some electronic device. It was almost eerie.

    My question for you is what do we do to make sure our children don't become so dependent on technology??? I don't feel the need for them to have cell phones yet but I can see why we will need them in the future...as it is nice for you to get a text from Isaac or hear from Abby when she is driving somewhere. I think way too much about this ;)

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  22. My husband was just telling me that when he goes to the playground with the kids he has to tell himself to not check his phone. We are all so addicted! I miss the good old less-connected days.

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  23. I loved this post! As a young adult, with no children, as an outside observer I see kids seeking attention more and more these days. Maybe I don't understand because I don't have kids of my own, and I fully understand the fact that children should learn to play on their own, but I get slightly annoyed when parents give absolutely no attention to their children and the children feel the need to act out because of the lack of attention. I feel that when I see kids acting out because of lack of attention, parents console them with electronics and then I have to watch a 6 year old in a drooling daze playing games. What happened to reading a book or wanting to be outside, increasing and feeding our imaginations?

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  24. I think it is so helpful to carefully think through this issue and be intentional with our time and connecting to others in our family and community. Regardless, my mom was very distracted when I was a child (over 30 years ago) and it wasn't because of technology -- it was housework, or her own issues, or whoever was the 'squeakiest wheel' or any other 'emergency' responsibility she had to deal with at the moment. A friend of mine once told me that she could see that I'd grown up well 'taken care of' in the physical realm of things, clothed, fed, etc., but was utterly neglected in the emotional realm . . . there really was a lack of meaningful connection in our household. Distraction by technology was not the cause . . .

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  25. I was at the store this past weekend, where I observed a little boy asking his dad a question repeatedly, in ever increasing desperation--wanting to be heard, acknowledged. The father never did engage his son. He was not on a cell phone; he was simply "checked out."

    My childhood was not idyllic. My family's attitude toward children (of which I was the only one) was the once-prevalent "children are to be seen and not heard." Unfortunately, I rarely felt "seen" either.

    When I see a parent getting down on a child's level, looking them in the eyes, and "listening" and responding to the child, it makes me happy.

    No one is perfect all the time, but an effort to be present most of the time will go a long way toward healthy childhood development that will create healthy adults who will model the behavior they have learned. Don't you love the "what goes around comes around" when it is a positive thing?

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  26. I have tried to make it a point to announce to my kids (and husband!) exactly what I am doing on my phone if I am on it with them around. This keeps me "honest" as far as being sure that if I am Googling the answer to that interesting question they had or checking the calendar to see if we can go to the fun thing they are asking about, or whether now that that's over with I'm playing with the Google doodle or looking at that other email.
    There are things that take precedence--directions, plan changes, all those things. And there are days I am so distracted by talking with another mom that I am not paying attention to every at-bat. But like meditation--for me, the key is to keep bringing myself back to focus and train that wandering little mind and bring it back. Little league will end. Questions about African folktales will someday be researched without my help. Thank you for your blog, which helps me keep that mind from drifting too far from the world as my kids see it.

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  27. I agree with everything you said! I think cell phone etiquette should be taught to everyone who owns one! There is a time and a place for electronic use. I feel proud that my husband and I know when our kids are around they get our attention. Life's just too short to do otherwise.

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  28. Yes, I have had this same conversation and same thoughts so much the last year or so. It's maddening at times and I have said more than once that I wish I was parenting in my parents' era. I would have many of the conveniences (washing machine!), but not all the extra distractions. They are a huge blessing, to be sure...I can learn how to do anything at a moment's notice via the internet and stay connected with many people (too many?) via FB, but I still would rather have less options. I hadn't even thought about how it's changing kids' abilities to learn how to do certain things, but it's so true! I will have to remember that as my children get older.

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  29. I am struggling with this--even without a smartphone. So good to hear encouragement on this front. We are all trying to do our best, and it helps to hear other voices fighting the same battles.

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  30. Thank you for this reminder. I am one of those parents that makes a point NOT to be on my phone at the park (even resisted getting a smart phone forever because I didn't want to be), but I know there are so many times sitting at a stop light in the car that I am looking at it, or in various moments like that and I DON'T want my children to remember me that way! Why is it so hard! I see my husband do it and it is so clear to me, and I ask him to put it away, I need to be that voice for myself. I need reminders like this everyday! Thank you so much for always reminding us about how fleeting these precious days are!!

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  31. Loved this, Sarah! I never even thought of the texts from older children...I guess there are all sorts of tech challenges throughout all the stages! I also see so many kids with smartphones nowadays and that just really scares me! Anyway, I am a guilty mom also! I've found that if I put my phone down in one spot in the morning and don't touch it until lunch time and then again at dinner, I am a much more present mama. It's so easy to get in the habit of checking each email with every "ding" and scroll Facebook during a lull time...so sad. It is a completely different world nowadays and keeping my computer/phone time in check is certainly a goal! Great post.

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  32. Well said. Now to close my laptop and go snuggle my sweet angels.

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  33. Absolutely Sarah. I think about this all the time. Today I was at In-N-Out burger with my 16 month old (because he loves the grilled cheese and fries:) I found myself checking facebook on my phone while he was in the highchair. I couldn't believe I was doing that and quickly caught myself and put it away. He likes to look around at all the people, but i told myself I need to be looking at him.

    Facebook is a whole other issue I wonder about. I see things that parents post and wonder what their kids think because the kids have facebook accounts too. Maybe my Mom did like to party sometimes (doubt it), but I certainly didn't look at pictures of it. As Moms, we all need to stay focused on our kids, and what we feel is best for them.

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  34. My cell phone is literally one step up from "brick". I'm going to keep it that way because I know I would be way too distracted by it otherwise.

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  35. Such a balanced, well written post. I feel the same way....all the "convenience" makes it so easy for us to be distracted all the time!

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  36. My goodness I can relate to everything you said. the mobile devices make us busier for no real gain.

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  37. And this is why I follow your blog. Best post ever! You're bold and you speak the truth. I admire that, especially since this is an issue that sincerely needs addressing! I love that you're one of the few voices out there that encourages slowing down, enjoying your children, and putting your time into what matters most. I love it!!! Thanks for the reminder to pay attention to my kids (and it's not just phones that are distracting!) and your insight! (:

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  38. Thank you for this wonderful post reminding us what is important. I think we are not only in a world of ignoring our children, but also they are not learning any independence by being so dependent on their cell phone. It is a vicious cycle.

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  39. I appreciate the fact that you balanced out your observation of the other parents on their cell phones by presenting your own situation of being on the phone. It's so easy to judge other parents on what they should/should not do when we get a snapshot view of their lives.

    I have to remind myself often that we are all just trying to do the best we can. I have no idea what is on that other parent's plate that he/she is looking at his/her phone right now. Even that dad mentioned in the article you quoted. No one knows what may have been pressing him to be on his phone at that moment--could have been another child, a dying parent...maybe he's a doctor on-call and he's talking a scared mom through her child's illness...So many possibilities.

    One of the most beautifully written posts I've ever read on the subject is this one. Maybe you've already seen it.

    http://friedokra4me.blogspot.com/2013/03/dear-mom-on-iphone-i-get-it.html

    I also have to also agree with other commenters here: As the youngest of 7 kids, I have no memories of my parents playing with me or organizing play dates. In fact, unless it was "parents' night" my parents never even came to any of my games (I was a cheerleader forever and ever, amen). They couldn't...they were being pulled in so many other directions, raising kids, working, keeping the house in order, cooking...and carting the other kids to their activities.

    I remember my mom sitting almost every day, talking on the phone to her best friend.
    I remember my mom reading books, constantly.
    I remember the TV on all the time and what shows my parents watched (no DVR and no way to pause the show--we were often shushed or shooed out of the room).
    I remember being told to go outside and play, and come home before the street lights come on.
    I remember my dad working overtime at the factory and reading the paper while he ate, and we were forbidden to disturb him.

    Different generation. Still distracted.

    But I still knew my parents loved me. I never questioned that. We all still had a thriving, secure childhood and home life.

    That said, I do my absolute best to step away from the phone/computer to engage with the people in my life. I don't really like my phone, so it's not that difficult for me.

    But with a teen and a tween in the house now, I'm having a harder time trying to teach them balance with text vs. face-to-face or voice-to-voice, since all of their friends are also glued to their devices. It's how they communicate now.

    Many layers to this issue, for sure.

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  40. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. They were exactly what I needed. I hope it's ok, I shared a link to your blog today (on mine) for this article. You are such an encouragement to me!

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  41. Thanks, Sara. I think about this all the time as my children ask me to spend time with them. It is a fine balance of keeping everything on track and playing.

    love your blog!

    -WEndy

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  42. Such a great reminder! I think for almost all of us, this post hit us right between the eyes, or should I say, right in the heart!

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  43. Thought provoking, thank you. Liked your post and Sandy Scoop on Balance response and link too. Tricky, tricky, tricky business. It's always something though, our parents had different challenges and our kids will have challenges as parents too. Pray and work hard and hopefully our kids turn out great.

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  44. Yes, yes, and yes!! Thanks for your thoughts on this topic that I think about a lot.

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  45. Thanks for voice of reason.
    Luv little Janey....she is a crack up thanks for sharing her with us....

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  46. I struggle with these issues, too. Thanks for putting it into such articulate words.

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  47. As an instructional technology coach, teacher, parent, and grandparent, I truly can relate to your articulate words of wisdom, here. I have shared this with several folks who probably need a reminder as well as me, a guilty party. We owe our children (and I mean all these children with whom I interact) so much - and I don't mean so much stuff or tangible things - I mean time and attention. How else are they going to learn if we don't model what is expected and valued in our society? Thanks for such an insightful post!

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