Being There

A Reflection On Parenting

It was a ludicrous sight--one that struck a little too close to home. I was sitting on my front porch taking one of those rare moments to enjoy a bright summer morning. A young dad came cycling down the street, his child behind him in a bright blue-and-yellow trailer. Chattering intently on his cell phone, he looked oblivious to everything and everyone around him. I shook my head and laughed. Then I recalled how many times I've been with my kids--without really being there.

My wife Katie and I have spent many family bike rides busily processing the day's frustrations, and being barely aware of the sunset or the company of our children. All too often, when we return home after a long workday and commute, a portion of our evening becomes "adult decompression time."

According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, parents currently spend forty percent less time with their kids than they did in the 1950s. With today's demanding lifestyle, it's sometimes hard to be fully present in the brief moments of leisure we have with our families. When we do finally make it back home after another frantic day, there's often not much left to give. In her book The Overworked American, Harvard sociologist Juliet Schor tells us that Americans are working longer, taking less leisure, and sleeping fewer hours. If that's not enough bad news, there are also indications that many Americans don't find their jobs satisfying or meaningful. So we work, stress, consume, and work more. When we finally finish our day, what time remains is often just enough to say good night or read a short story to our children. Sometimes, even that's a stretch.

I've fallen asleep halfway through many a bedtime story, prompting an exasperated "Daaaad!" from my children. Their frustration tells me that time is the one thing they need the most from me. It is also the thing that often is the most difficult to give, and for which there is no substitute.

Katie and I, like most middle-class parents of our generation, do a pretty good job of providing for our children. I wonder, however, if "providing" plays more of a role in our parenting than it should. Our consumer-driven culture places a very high value on providing: sustenance, comfort, education, recreation, direction, limits. In some ways we even provide love, through words and gestures compacted into those brief moments of daily leisure.

My own parents provided very well for the basic needs of our family, and even afforded us some luxuries. In retrospect, however, I would gladly have traded some of those luxuries for more of my father's presence and companionship. Like my own and many other fathers, I also find it much easier to provide than to give of my time. Sometimes, I fear that I leave my own children wanting something far more important from me than the material things I can offer.

More than anything else, I have found that my kids just want me to be there--to listen, learn, share, discover, appreciate, and celebrate. This occurred to me one day when I was attending my son Dylan's karate class. I noticed the sidelong glances he kept giving me and how he practically lit up each time I gave him a thumbs-up for completing a move. I've noticed the same sparkle in my daughter, Alina, when she's spotted me in the crowd of parents at a school event. I've seen it in our private walks and talks together and in the occasional "daddy and me" special trips. It's in these moments that I feel like I'm at my best as a parent. Moments that have deepened my relationship with my children.

One of the best vacations I've ever taken was with my son Dylan. A year ago we took an Amtrak trip to Chicago for three days. The train trip was a first for both of us and a shared adventure. Having grown up in suburban Minneapolis, Dylan was in awe of downtown Chicago. Every walk, every ride on a taxi, bus, or train was an exciting discovery for him--as were the great museums of the Windy City. The sights, however, were not the highlight of the trip. It was the being together, the shared wonder and excitement. For three days we were intimate companions, discovering our world and each other.

True, such trips are a rare treat, but I've found that the same intimacy can also be gained in relatively short times together. My three-year-old son Jake and I recently spent an afternoon playing with our Tonka trucks in the empty lot behind our house. I still have one of my own! Using our bulldozers and dump trucks, we carved roads in the hills of dirt just as I did as a youngster. Afterwards, while we sat at the kitchen table cooling off with a couple of ice-cream floats, Jake spontaneously remarked, "You really treat me well, Dad." His remark was heartfelt and touched me deeply. I knew that it was the time together that made Jake happy, not solely the trucks or the ice-cream float.

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