Yesterday, I had a unique opportunity to observe my children in their natural habitat - at play. I play with my boys each day, and although some days are better than others we are able to play together in some fashion most of the time. Yesterday, we decided to head to the local waterpark for a full five hours of fun. I was really looking forward to it; no TVs, no phones, no Gameboys, no outside distractions - just me and them and water and laughter. The first hour was great, as we went down water slides and splashed each other into oblivion. But then I cut open both of my feet on the diving board, which is a long story that shall go untold except to say that my ego wrote a check that my "cool factor" was unable to cash. With two open cuts, my pool time was over. Of course, I knew that the boys wanted to stay for the remaining four hours. So, with a firm commitment to staying as long as they wanted and with absolutely no available distractions like an iPhone or book to keep me busy, I did what I should be doing all the time.
I watched them. I was too far way to talk to them, or to hear them, or to correct them. I was free of any sensory observation other than what I was able to see. I could not hear them, so if they argued I couldn't rob them of the opportunity to work things out themselves by trying to be a referee. I could not hear them talking, so I couldn't judge their thoughts by offering my own insights and opinions. Most of the time I could not even see them, so I could not make "helpful" suggestions about what to do or how to do it. All I could do was sit and glimpse them periodically. Sometimes they were together, sometimes they were apart. Sometimes it appeared that they were having a challenging time, but for the vast majority of the four hours they got along, shall we say, swimmingly.
If you ever have the opportunity to simply watch your children, free of distractions and judgment, take it. What an amazing gift.
I had nothing to do but watch and learn from them, to see their worlds as they saw it, to experience the joy of unfettered play. Because I had nothing to distract me, I was perfectly engaged and focused on observing. Because I could not control anything, I was at perfect peace. And because they were alone together, they were perfectly and completely free - free from guidance, free from judgment, and free from influence. I felt like I got an opportunity to not merely spend time with them, but to truly experience them as the amazing young people they are.
On the way home, we were talking about how much fun they had and I mentioned something about the fact that they were in the pools for four hours straight without even coming over to me once. My oldest son said something very profound: "Daddy, we didn't come over because we didn't need anything. But we always knew you were there in case we did." As I reflected on his words last night, it became clear to me what he was talking about: my level of engagement with him was less critical than my availability to be engaged.
In a world of seemingly endless distraction possibilities, it can be hard to disconnect and stay available to our children or ourselves. The internet has given us so many marvelous advantages, as we now have access to ideas and information at the touch of a finger. We can chat with friends in real-time across thousands of miles; we can play games on our Wii or Playstation, with people in our own home or people from different countries. We can find out what's going on in our local community this afternoon, this week, or this month, and plan accordingly. We can watch movies on our iPads, and we can write our thoughts and ideas on "paper" and then send them instantly to friends and strangers. We use technology to learn, to inform, to connect, to entertain, and for hundreds of other purposes. And, overall, that's a good thing.
That said, I do wonder sometimes what this technology has meant for families. It can help keep them connected, of course, especially when they are spread out in different states or countries. But in some circumstances, it can build artificial walls around connectedness as family members flock to their own rooms, their own games, and their own computers without taking the time to look into each other's eyes and connect with each other. It's not just the kids; parents are just as likely to spend time on their Blackberries and iPods, playing Farmville or checking status updates on Facebook, or writing blog posts, as examples. The problem really isn't the technology itself. Nor is it the way we use that technology, for the most part. No, the problem occurs when we, as parents, find it impossible to disconnect.
Why is disconnecting important? Because it gives you an opportunity to both be available to and experience your children.
With the variety of other things that require our attention - finances, our partners, family and friends, ourselves and our passions - finding time for everything can be challenging. Technology can help us manage all of that, providing the tools we need to both juggle and escape from our busy lives. But it is one of life's true ironies that the more we cram into our lives, the greater our need to escape from it in order to relax. So as our stress levels increase, we find that even our "leisure activities" become commitments for which we are willing to sacrifice. We've trained ourselves to fill up our spare time with something, be it technology based, reading, crafting, or other hobbies. It's okay to sacrifice some things in pursuit of leisure; after all, we need leisure in our lives, and it is critical to connected parenting that we make some time to pursue our own interests, both as a positive example for our kids and as a sanity outlet for ourselves.
But when we focus on these pursuits to such an extent that we become unable to break free from them and be available to our children, we're running risks on multiple levels.
Now, I am not suggesting that we should be held captive to our child's every whim, or that we should immediately drop whatever we're doing to get them something they need. I am suggesting, however, that we should be able to stop what we are doing long enough to connect with our children to be sure we fully understand what they need, or to be able to pause long enough to let them know how soon we'll be available. And I am definitely suggesting that, when our stress is high and our need to escape from it both intense and immediate, we still have a responsibility to consider the relative importance of surfing Facebook or responding to an email as compared to the expressed or observed needs of our children.
Imagine the following conversation:
Child: "Daddy, can you get me an ice cream cup from the freezer?"
Ten seconds pass.
Parent:"Hmm . . . ?"
C: "Can you please get me an ice cream?"
P: "Uh, yeah. Gimme a minute."
Three minutes pass; the child hears you tapping away at the computer.
C: "Are you going to get me that ice cream?"
P: "Excuse me? I said I'd get in a minute. Can you please be patient for a sec?"
C: "Never mind. I'll get it myself."
P: "Fine, I'll get it. I don't see why you couldn't wait."
From a parent's perspective, we are involved in what we're doing and we don't see why our child cannot wait a few minutes and respect the fact that we're busy; after all, look at all the things we do well during the day. Why can't our kids see that? Haven't we earned the right to enjoy a little free time to ourselves? Of course we have.
But from the child's perspective, he can't see why he has to ask for something three times that, were you not on the computer, you would have gotten in a heartbeat. He has heard "wait a minute"s that have turned into 15 minutes hundreds of times. He is likely frustrated at his perception that you think your email is more important than he is. He wonders why you get aggravated when he doesn't respond immediately to something you ask, yet he is supposed to sit patiently while being ignored. And he thinks about all of the good things he does during the day and can't figure out why you can't see them, too. Most parents don't want their kids to feel this way, of course. But the potential for the child to feel hurt and unimportant is only part of the picture.
The real danger occurs when, because your child believes that you are unavailable to them, they stop asking. They will not always ask. And the more we are unavailable to them, the more likely it is that they will see lack of availability as a typical trait and adopt it for themselves, respond in kind, and leave us to wonder what the hell happened.
Making ourselves unavailable, if left unchecked, inhibits our ability to experience life in partnership with our children. It can cause us to see our relationships with our children as one more thing on a to do list, one more thing we have to make time for. It can lead us to spend our time simply transacting with our children, or interacting with them in "quality time." We can end of conducting the "family business" we feel we need to conduct in order to stay connected to the degree that we find, on the whole, acceptable. We can end up living our relationships with our children through drive-bys and sound bites. We try to find time between all of the "to do"s to squeeze in a special moment, perhaps a laugh or a smile.
We may like our children, love our children, and interact with them. They will not always want us or need us, no matter what their age. There are days, even weeks, in which they don't ask us for much of anything and don't want to interact with us. But even though they may not want us right now, that could change on a dime - and we need to be there, available and engaged, ready to go, when they do change. When we are unavailable to them, we miss out on the privilege of experiencing our children. That not only robs them of all of the benefits of true and deep connectedness. It robs you of of it as well.