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.