By: Cara Plett
You’re likely doing a good job taking care of your children. But how are you at being with them?
You can raise organically fed, financially savvy, athletically adept children in your toxin-free, low-clutter home. But you need to be careful not to stop there. If you don’t take the time to build a relationship with your kids rather than simply take responsibility for them, it doesn’t matter how healthy they are if you’ve lost their hearts.
How many times has a scenario similar to this played out in your home?
“Mummy, can you build a tower with me?”
“I’d love to, just after I’m done washing the dinner dishes!”
Your intentions may be pure, but your execution is poor. After the dishes, you swept, wiped the high chair, switched the laundry, fed the dog, sent a text, read a work email, and scrolled for a minute (or two) on your phone.
Now it’s bedtime and you never did end up building a tower – or a relationship with your child.
It’s true that distractions are a part of normal life in a tech-saturated, task-oriented, overly committed society. But normal isn’t always best.
Rachel Macy Stafford, author of Hands Free Mama, realised what she was missing by squeezing a few extra minutes of productivity out of her day. “Phrases like ‘maybe later’ and ‘in a minute’ didn’t just cost a few precious seconds,” she writes. “They cost me a future – a future relationship with the people I loved and precious future memories of time spent together.”
Read on for tips to temporarily turn from daily distractions so you can experience a more meaningful life by prioritising your children – not just in theory, but in everyday practice.
1. Proximal is not the same as present
“An untouchable blur whizzing from point A to point B in nanoseconds.”
That’s how Stafford described her life as a task-oriented parent before making the decision to do away with distractions to “give and receive love in the sacred pauses of a busy day.”
Of course, ensuring your child is safe, fed, healthy and clothed is important. That’s what Karin Gregory, director of counselling at Focus on the Family Canada, calls taking care of your child. But she says being with your child is distinctly different.
When you’re within 10 feet of your kids 12 hours a day, it’s easy to confuse physical proximity to them as emotional connection with them. But as Gregory puts it, “proximal is not the same as present.”
She points out that “FaceTime wasn’t invented by the people at Apple; it was invented by God.” By design, a child’s neurobiology is impacted when they make eye contact with you. Your son or daughter can watch you tackle your to-do list, and they may even learn to mimic your work ethic and skills. But with eye contact and intentional face time, they learn to mirror expression, language and social connection.
What you don’t want is for your child to get your undivided, face-to-face attention only when they’re being disciplined as that could taint their perception of connection, Gregory cautions.
2. Learn to like your children – and show it!
Sure, you love your children. It’s generally frowned upon if you don’t. But do you like your kids? Do you desire to spend time with them? Do you observe and take joy in the intricacies of their personality? Do they know that you relish in their play, or do they believe that you see their resourceful tent-making in the living room as nothing more than a speed bump in your cleaning schedule?
“If you act like your kid being near you is an irritant, you’re not going to be able to work that out later or do it over again,” Gregory cautions. It sounds cliché to say, Your children won’t be young forever, so cherish every moment! But it’s true. How you connect with your kids in the early years lays the foundation for your lifelong relationship with them – or lack thereof.
The battle to express this unconditional love to our kids is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the book of Titus. Paul writes in Titus 2:4, “Train the young women to love their husbands and children.” If it needed saying, it probably means that women needed to work on it! They needed encouragement to turn from distractions in order to pour undivided attention and love out to their kids.
In Stafford’s words, “Saying ‘I love you’ is easy, but showing love – that takes effort.”
3. Children have a different definition of “me time”
In today’s society, maternal affection takes a back seat to self-love, and selflessness is less fun than “treat yourself” and “me time.” Locking yourself in the bathroom with a snack and a smartphone is almost applauded.
Of course, a solo bathroom break is extremely valuable. Caring for young children can admittedly be mundane, tedious and overwhelming at times. But taking a break as a means to escape a child’s behaviour may instead escalate that behaviour as the child is denied the attention they crave. Because sometimes when you want “me time,” your kid is wanting the same thing. But your son or daughter’s idea of “me time” often looks more like “mummy-and-me time.”
“If you can take breaks during the day to be with your child, it gives you a better window into their highs and lows, when they are disinclined to listen, or when they are bubbly and full of questions,” Gregory says. “If you prioritise your tasks above all else, however, you will inevitably miss these cues.” Then you may wonder why your child is throwing a tantrum or giving you the cold shoulder.
That said, “me time” isn’t always selfish. Spending a few minutes to pray for patience or reading a Psalm in private is truly refreshing spiritually and emotionally. But scrolling social media can be a big waste of time and can actually make you feel less satisfied with your life. The next time you feel the need for some “me time,” ask yourself whether you’re trying to escape your family or trying to be refreshed by the Spirit to better love your kids.
4. Identify your distractions
“What daily distractions prevent me from being fully present with the people I love? What actions can I take to reduce or eliminate one or more of these distractions?”
Stafford says to ask yourself these questions to determine exactly which factors are siphoning life out of your relationship with your kids. Then you can focus on reducing these distractions and “protecting your time and talents from activities that leave you depleted.”
For her, lack of sleep made her an on-edge mama. For me, the more screen time I have, the less patient I am with my kids, and the more irritable and anxious I am. For you, perhaps it’s your inability to say no to volunteer opportunities. Or maybe you’re making the cleanliness of your home your idol.
5. Making memories starts with making moments
If you’re not ready to drop everything and play all day with your kids, that’s understandable. But at the very least, Stafford encourages you to “simply let go of distraction for one moment. In that moment, you have the power to make a significant connection.”
It may help to schedule times in your day, maybe at 10 a.m. for 30 minutes, when you put down your phone, hang up your proverbial tool belt and pick up some toys – to play with, not to tidy! Or if playing isn’t for you, reading books or simply sitting beside your child as they go about their activities will work too.
Be mindful especially of five moments in your child’s day: when they first wake, when they get hurt, when you say goodbye, when you reunite and when you tuck them into bed. When these five moments occur, stop what you’re doing, make eye contact with your son or daughter, and truly connect with them for at least one or two minutes.
6. Prioritise people in your agenda, not just in theory
“What do you consider a valuable use of your time? Does your daily agenda reflect this?” Stafford asks.
“If I couldn’t check off an activity on my to-do list, it held no value,” she admits. “But when I started viewing time spent with family . . . as a Priceless Investment, I was able to make those moments a priority in my schedule. Leisurely activities I once viewed as time wasters were now esteemed as valuable contributions to my children’s memory banks.”
Like Stafford, you may need to adjust your perspective to give yourself permission to pause and parent.
Also, if you’re a true slave to your to-do list, add some people-focused tasks to it! Park visits with your toddlers, baking cookies with your kindergartener, going to a coffee shop with your teen. Write it, do it, check it off the list and reap the relationship benefits at the same time!
Periodically, schedule a day off, or even an afternoon, intended for family time. If you can, leave the house so you don’t get tempted to do just one more to-do list item before beginning your family fun.
7. Turn tasks into opportunities for connection
You can’t neglect errands and work that are necessary for the health and well-being of your family. But you can make the most of tasks by turning them into relationship-building opportunities.
“Completing household responsibilities alone was cheating myself – and cheating my children,” Stafford writes. “Doing household chores together was a not-so-obvious opportunity to grasp what really mattered.”
For example, grocery shopping can be just as social as it is productive. Admittedly, it takes a little extra effort to engage your children while you’re trying to complete your grocery list. But the exercise can actually help your child enjoy the activity rather than wish it were over.
And as you’re driving around to complete errands, try using car rides to have captive conversations with your child rather than to retreat into your own thought life.
© Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
Article supplied with thanks to Focus on the Family Australia.
About the Author: Cara is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family provides relevant, practical support to help families thrive in every stage of life.