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.
Times like these with Dylan, Alina, and Jake will be enduring memories for me. While my children may forget some of these childhood experiences, I believe what we've shared will become part of our evolving relationship--an accumulation of feelings and memories of our moments together. I can only hope my children will pass on the fruit of these moments to their own children.
Despite my belief in its value, "being there" still requires a constant effort on my part. I recently decided to take my kids to the park. I had the right idea, until I grabbed my hard-to-put-down novel on my way out the door. As my kids climbed the play structure at the park, I walked to the picnic tables with my book in hand. Just about to settle on a seat, I noticed the dads at tables on either side of me. The one on my left was engrossed in his own novel. The one on my right had his cell phone and work papers spread before him. Reconsidering, I decided to answer Jake's call to join him on the rope ladders. On many other occasions, however, I opt to be left alone or to enjoy Katie's company. Sometimes I just need to be away from my kids.
Taking care of myself and having my own time is important for me as a parent. It's the way I achieve my own peace and sense of self-fulfillment. Without it, being there for my children would be like giving them a gift box with pretty wrapping and nothing inside. I have to find space for both myself and my family. That's when "being there" can be so challenging--when I can't fit my needs, those of my marriage, and those of my children into the same brief moments of leisure.
I try, like many parents, to get more time out of my week than what's actually there. It doesn't work, of course. There's not enough time to divide three ways after I subtract work, other commitments, and my daily routines and chores. Someone always suffers. From time to time I've had to remind myself of the importance of my family in relation to my work and other responsibilities (which occupy the bulk of my time). This has meant dropping some commitments, altering career goals, taking risks, and earning less money.
Still, it's not just a matter of making changes to find more time for recreation. It takes time and dedicated presence to notice not just the wants and needs of my children but also the subtleties of their emerging personalities and spirits. This presence has given me glimpses into the awe and curiosity with which my older son sees the world, the generosity of my daughter, and the humor of my younger son. It has also allowed me to share with them the things that bring me joy and satisfaction. Showing my children the new growth and blossoms on the trees and flowers I've planted enables them to share in the joy and satisfaction of my gardening. Taking the time to sit down with Dylan to muse about the wonders of science and nature enables me to enter into and share his awe of creation. As my children become older and their personalities and needs more complex, being there for them will become all the more important.
Maybe it's through simply being with each other that relationships and parenting are really born. We're like intricate paintings with many shades, textures, and subtle surprises that can be wholly appreciated only in a long peaceful gaze. Yet, we often live our lives in such a way as to only notice the billboards and neon lights. For children, these billboards are often their most basic physical needs and desires, and they are signaled through their behavior--all too often, their negative behavior. Paying too much attention to the obvious in our children may prevent us from fully appreciating who they are, or what deeper needs they have. Tragically, we may realize this after it's too late: when we've grown distant from children we don't understand or can't relate to, and agonize over problems we can't help them overcome.
When I am fully present and attentive to my children during our talks, walks, or other outings, I can see past the neon lights of their social personalities to the intricacies and beauty of their spirits. I can glimpse the special things they bring to their world and see how I might nourish their growth. Knowing someone in this manner commutes the deepest kind of regard and love. The kind of love that makes people flourish.
If we wish our children to flourish, we must ask if we are teaching them to appreciate the subtleties and moments that define life and to be there for the people they love. What do we model for our children through the choices we make? According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, the average child spends thirty minutes per week one-on-one with his/her father, 2.5 hours per week with his/her mother, and over twenty hours per week watching television. How much deep regard and love can a dad fit into thirty minutes, or a mom into 2.5 hours? Is this the legacy we want to hand down to our grandchildren?
Being there may be the most difficult gift to give to our children, but it's also the most precious one we have--ourselves. It is the gift of love that is the most enduring.
Ed Colón is a freelance writer and organizational consultant. He lives in Ramsey, Minnesota with his wife and three children.
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