Spending time with our children is obviously a huge part of ensuring a child’s self-worth as they grow. When we are spending that time with our children though, are we truly engaged with them or just taking up space in the same room as them? There is a huge difference, obviously. Jim Rohn, one of the great motivation/self-improvement gurus of our time, has a great adage, “wherever you are, be there.” If you’re in the shower, enjoy the shower. If you’re at a red light, enjoy the red light. I know, easier said than done. But we simply can’t get frustrated by these trivial things, so why not enjoy them? That being said, how many times have you caught yourself going through the motions with your child and not being “there”?
Maybe you’re on the floor playing dolls. Your daughter wants you to act out what she is imagining, yet you can’t seem to find the energy to genuinely indulge yourself. I’ve been there plenty of times. What’s amazing about kids is that they know when you’re really there and when you’re just there taking up space. Mustering that energy to really be there may be the single most difficult task of parenting. I struggle with it most times. Once in awhile, I’ll have one of those “money” days where I was just on as a dad. Kind of like a baseball pitcher who is locked in. He’s in the zone and whatever pitch he throws at the hitter, he knows that on that particular day he can’t be beat. This is part confidence and part determination. If you intend to come home after a long day of work, lay on the couch and just “be there,” that’s exactly what you’ll do. On the contrary, if you’re proactive and have a plan on what exactly you’re going to do with your kids on that same day, you’re chances for success increase substantially. Laying around being a couch potato only makes the kids restless and bored. Restless and bored is not good as a parent. That’s when trouble starts. If you have multiple kids, that’s about the time they start picking at each other and looking for alternative sources of entertainment, such as destroying things.
Please don’t take this as, “Oh, I should get home from work, never watch TV, and constantly be playing with my kids?” That’s not all what I’m implying. Quite simply, a little REAL time with your kids goes a long way. Satisfying their need to have your undivided attention doesn’t take long. Here are a few tips to help your chances for success in being present and genuinely engaged while with your children:
1. Have a plan. Have a rough mental outline for what you’re going to do that particular day. Having a plan makes you the leader. When you’re the leader, you have more of a vested interest in being there.
2. Turn frustration into fascination. This is another of Jim Rohn’s techniques that works great with kids. Jim discusses being stuck in traffic and how he tries to be fascinated with the traffic rather than frustrated by asking things like, “Isn’t it fascinating how traffic is backed up?.” Again, this is a pretty idealistic technique, specifically with traffic, but try it with your kids. For example, once my oldest daughter, Kaylee, was having an extremely difficult time sleeping at night. She’d wake up and think that the shadows on the walls were monsters. As you probably know, being woken up in the middle of the night by a screaming child isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world. While part of me wanted to crumble and simply tell her to get back in her bed, I was able, after pounding this concept into my head, to become fascinated with why she continually woke up at night. Becoming fascinated with her problem, I became dedicated to helping her solve it. The last night she woke up, I took her around the house and calmly explained to her what each shadow actually was. The reward for being this patient was huge, and she knows the next time she has a problem, I’ll help her with it, not chastise her for it.
3. Focus on the lasts. As parents, we are so overwhelmed with the “firsts” of our child’s life that we usually neglect the “lasts.” We usually know how old they were or where we were when they took their first steps, spoke their first words or called you by name. Most of us don’t, however, remember the last time we ever picked them up, changed their diaper or fed them a bottle. We are so consumed with the day-to-day that often find ourselves wishing those years away only to be overrun with regret as we look back on those days knowing we could have enjoyed them more. I know I’m guilty of it. I remember putting my kids in their car seat wishing I was putting them in a booster seat. Some time later, I’m sure I was putting one of them in a booster seat wishing we didn’t have car seats at all. I don’t remember the last time I put either of my daughters in a car or booster seat. Those days are gone, never to be recovered. While putting kids in a car seat is not exactly something to miss, it starts here and becomes a habit with bigger, more important things in life. Yet if we focus on the lasts and consider all of the minute tasks we perform as fathers, if we treat them as the last time we’ll ever do them, we approach them with a completely different attitude. We want to be perfect and to savor it if it is indeed the last time we ever did it.
A friend of mine adopted this approach with his young son who was still in diapers. His son was at the stage where dad was expecting him to get out of diapers, yet while potty-training, the child had an accident and wet himself. At first, my friend told me he was furious. One more thing to do that wasn’t on the list of things to do. “How could you do this? You’re supposed to be potty-trained,” he thought. As he angrily reached for a fresh diaper and lay his son on the floor to change it, he collected himself and thought, “What if this is the last time I ever do this? Will I want to remember that I just rushed through only to get to the next task that I would probably rush through as well?” He then changed his approach. He decided this would be the best diaper changing his son would ever have. He ensured the lining of the diaper fit perfectly around his son’s thighs so no leaking would occur. He ensured that the adhesive tabs on the diaper were perfectly square and had just the right amount of tension in them as to not let the diaper be too tight. That diaper was put on perfectly. And rightfully so. It may have been the last one he ever put on. He soaked it up by focusing on the lasts. He was really there.
4. Value their values. It’s easy to dismiss our kids’ values as childish and unimportant. This can be a huge mistake and ultimately lead to our children believing that we don’t think their interests, and ultimately themselves, are important. The bottom line though, is that what they value will shape the person they become one day. If we don’t embrace those values, or provide direction when those values may be off-target from what we believe are appropriate, we pose some serious risk to the self esteem our children carry into their adult life. One example Stephen Covey shares in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, is of a child who has a deep love for the game of baseball. One summer, his father plans a trip across the nation to visit every major league stadium. When the father tells of his plan to a co-worker, the co-worker responds with, “I didn’t know you liked baseball that much.” The father then responds with, “I don’t, but I love my son that much.” Understanding their values and expressing interest in those values is key in really being there. This helps keep us interested and engaged in what they’re doing. Being engaged and interested in what they’re doing helps us really be there.
One final thought is to never compare yourself to other dads. Compare yourself to your own expectations. If you’re reading this, I’ll bet your expectations for your fathering skills are pretty high. Really being there takes commitment and patience. It’s not easy. Anytime anything is easy, I have to question what value it is adding. If we are pushing ourselves as fathers and committed to improving ourselves, we will experience some pain and anguish. Just know that pain and anguish subsides as your skill set increases. The more you push yourself and the more you try to really be there, the easier it gets. Just like when an athlete tries to build muscle, he tears down the muscle fiber after repeated workouts. As a result, it grows back stronger than before. The same is true for commitment and patience. The more you exercise them, the easier it gets to develop them.
Jay Fleischmann has been married to his wife, Amy, for 12 years. He has two daughters, Kaylee age nine, and Avery age six. Jay is in the process of writing a book entitled, I Like Myself, Dad, due out in 2009. When he’s not being a father and husband, Jay is an executive in the automotive manufacturing industry.
Image by: Phil Scoville, Flickr