Ignore your kids? It starts by thinking “maybe if I don’t answer, he’ll just figure it out, or go away”. That’s not necessarily a problem when you’re trying to cook dinner or finish up a phone call – that is, those times when you are deliberately ignoring minor interruptions.
It’s the other times that create a slippery slope to distracted parenting, when very good parents check out because they are trying to do too much – that is, those times when you’re picking up your child from school and your head is still finishing up the project at work or you’re sitting at the dinner table half listening to your child while texting your best friend or working on tomorrow’s to do list. Distracted parenting creates an unintended spiral of negative attention and challenging behavior. Attention doesn’t have to be earned, negotiated or charmed.
While multitasking seems necessary in order to juggle all the demands of family life, it’s important to acknowledge the myth behind multitasking. A 2009 Stanford University Study emphatically claims, multitaskers were just lousy at everything! And so, for parents, go ahead and combine mindless activities like washing dishes and listening to the evening news. But notice the other times when checking your Facebook pulls you away from breakfast with your child. Five minutes of your undivided attention fuels your child for independence. The corollary is equally true: distraction fuels your child’s demandingness.
Multitasking also undermines the effectiveness of discipline because children quickly learn to maneuver in the gaps between your attention. They know you don’t really mean “now”, giving them that window of opportunity to continue what you just asked them to stop. Multitasking adds to parent frustration and lengthens the time required for discipline challenges.
Start by being present during daily routines. According to the Real Diaper Association, parents change 6,000-8,000 in the life of each child. At 3-5 meals per day, children eat 1095-1825 meals a year. Not counting middle-of-the-night wakings, parents are taking their children in or out of bed 730-1460 times a year. By tuning-in during these times alone, children are guaranteed to get your undivided attention at least once an hour each day, every day! You’ll discover that your child needs you less to entertain her because her needs for positive attention have already been met.
The National PTA has suggested that changes in toys and in playtime have changed children’s ability to play creatively and independently. Sometimes, it’s the adults who don’t just let the kids play. We talk. We show. We get in the way of a perfectly brilliant adventure. If we trust that kids really do how to play, that whatever they are doing has value to them….and to their long-term brain development, kids could do more and parents could do less.
Next time, instead of jumping in to your child’s perfectly planned play time, just watch. And let nonverbal attention speak for you – a smile, a touch, sharing a knowing moment. Let your child feel your pride, joy and encouragement without words. You will harness the powerful, peaceful energy of with-it-ness.
Pause for feelings
Feelings of all kinds need to be noticed. Whether a child is happy or sad, eager or frustrated, gentle or anger, acknowledging an emotion lifts it to a place where the child can understand it better. Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize, understand and appropriately express the whole range of human emotions. Slowing down for children’s emotional lives helps children learn the lifelong skill of self-management: thinking before acting out (aka how to “use your words” or how to make “good choices”).
Being present is an essential parenting skill when it matters most. No one can parent 24-7 for very long but everyone can be truly present at sometime through each and every day. Communication, discipline, and problem solving all improve with thoughtful moments of undivided attention. In a world of a million and one distractions, and in the words from Avatar, “I see you” equals “I love you”.