Two Things Always Matter

Affirmations for parents

There is a good supply of helpful literature available for parents, some of which I have read and would recommend. None of it will be quoted or referenced here, though reading would support the thesis that, for parents and children, two things always matter:  time and attention.

Time

In the early years of my teaching career, I had several conferences with a married couple who were both young, successful professionals.  Both parents arrived for each conference with a laundry-list of complaints and criticisms, desperate for advice. Their six-year-old child was defiant, rude, disruptive, and argumentative, they said.  Mom said she started every day with a list of tasks she expected to accomplish in a day, but her daughter made it impossible to reach her goals. 

“Perhaps,” I said, “You should put your daughter on your list.”

The comment was impulsive and ill-considered. In the few seconds of awkward silence that ensued, I was embarrassed, then horrified.  Sarcasm is a bad habit. To my great relief and astonishment, both parents immediately accepted my snarky comment as a good, practical parenting strategy.

“I never thought of that,” mom said.  She had her notebook, and she put her daughter’s name on her list. “That’s a really good suggestion.”

It was neither the first nor the last time that smart, successful parents would realize with the force of revelation that good parenting takes a regular, considerable investment of time.

Attention

From infancy through adolescence, the only cure for attention-getting behavior is attention.  There are unpredictable occasions when attention from a parent must be regular, undivided, and uninterrupted.  In adult relationships, patience and flexibility are reasonable expectations.  Not so, for children. Adults may not be annoyed or distracted by the presence of a cell phone, but children will be. Adult relationships do not always require eye contact and touch, but children always do.

Balancing professional and parental demands takes strength and humility, and an uncomfortable willingness to compromise.  When kids go for days or weeks without a parent’s undivided attention, they will demand it, persistently, usually in ways that are unappealing and embarrassing.  Attention-getting behavior is rarely a polite request. More commonly, attention-getting behavior is negative, and disappears only after a parent’s disproportionate investment of time, steadfast, loving attention for a child.

Quality time is a useful phrase, but it is not a short-cut.  Scheduling time for a child is a good first step, but it is not a practical or sustainable strategy, and efficiency is irrelevant to children.  Some of the most important and necessary time invested in kids is brief and delightful, but some is unpleasant, repetitive, and tedious. When kids are potty training, or constipated, or sick, every eternal trip to the bathroom is quality time. Reading aloud to a child is quality time, and so is sharing a meal, or waiting while a child zips her coat, or brushes her teeth, or walks at her own meandering pace.

Parenting is not a race with a finish line, or a competition with a winner. Awesome moments are private, or revealed only in hindsight. Victories for parents are mostly small, scattered through years, perceptible only to those who are present and attentive enough to notice. Growing up takes a lifetime, and there is only one reliable method to determine along the way if a child is growing into a cooperative, enjoyable person to be with: spending vast amounts of unstructured time together, paying attention. The reward for parents is an adult who not only reciprocates, but also shares the love he first experienced as time and attention in his childhood home.

For a child, a parent’s time and attention offer two rewards, both of which are huge and intangible. One is an inner parent-voice that encourages and sustains throughout a healthy life, enabling one person to continue growing and learning long after she has moved away from home. The second reward is a loving relationship with the parents who both provided a home where a young child’s needs were met, and launched a young adult into the world with a solid foundation of confidence and hope.

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