It isn’t unusual to see a parent and child walking down the street together. Just yesterday I watched a young mom walk beside her 4-year-old, not needing to hold hands because the child seemed emotionally tethered enough to stay close. Mom’s feet were actually in the street. She only seemed concerned that her son’s feet remained in the grass of the yards they passed through. My first thought was to note her confidence that he would remain safe with cars passing by every few seconds.
Then I saw it. Both hands were fastened securely to the phone that was much closer to her face than her child’s presence. As I looked squarely at the little boy, I projected on to him his wonder and boredom at the situation where he was to remain safe but completely disconnected from the adult he walked beside.
I say, “I projected,” because I don’t have any idea what either of them were really thinking. I just wondered if he was thinking, “Are you there, mom?”
Spending time with our children is a privilege. It is driven by the need to be attentive for the first several years of their lives. They need us to feed them, burp them, change their pants and help them sleep comfortably. Soon they want to crawl and explore and will get into things that would be safe under any other circumstances except they have to put them in their mouths to know. When they begin to walk the world further expands and we have to childproof places containing harmful things. Hopefully, we have laced all this supervision with interactions—songs, sounds, words of love and descriptions of what we are doing even though they don’t really understand a word we are saying.
All of this was meant to be practice at being present. The shift from whether our child is physically safe to whether they are developing emotionally and intellectually happens earlier than we believe. Our actions have developed a trusting relationship that give us the credibility to guide and shape their futures. Unless we retreat and waste valuable times like walking to the store together in favor of an electronic device that comes between us. We would never put a pair of headphones on while we walked with someone; why do we allow a conversation with someone who is not even present to dominate and interrupt the conversation with our loved one who IS present?
Researchers say that dads provide a valuable sense of reality to their children. I would argue that this sense of reality was born in the thousands of little conversations containing explanations, advice, how-to and invitations to wonder. Moms have the same opportunities with a slightly different world to analyze and explore.
We must remain present if we want to guide our children. Sure, we spend a number of hours working away from them—even if that is in the other room in a virtual office. Covid-19 has given us the gift of availability that challenges our attention span but blesses our children with a nearby, accessible-if-needed presence they will never forget.
May we all take advantage of this gift by talking, sharing, guiding and joking around with our most precious gift—our children.