A few weekends ago, my wife and I were at our community pool with our children. As often happens, a neighborhood child swam over and started talking to us. No introduction, no befriending my daughter with “do you want to play with me?” he simply integrated himself into our ongoing activities. We certainly accommodated him, asked his name and introduced him to our children, and encouraged him to join us. But he quickly became a distraction, as he vied for our attention or aggressively tried to play with our youngest (who cannot swim). This would have been a great time for his parents to join us in the pool and provide some oversight, but they were too busy lounging on the deck and talking on their phones. Once or twice they called to their son to tell him stop a particular behavior, but beyond that they couldn’t be bothered. Clearly, the child was seeking much-needed attention. Later, as we left the pool, I felt smugly superior to these lazy, selfish parents. Here I was, spending time with my own three children, and still had the energy and patience to deal with someone else’s, who were too rude and self-absorbed to even say thank you.
Later in the day, that self-righteousness ended abruptly as I caught myself so absorbed in reading an article on my iPad that I didn’t realize my son had been vying for my attention. He ultimately got it, but only by taking flour out of the pantry and dumping it all over the kitchen floor. (I would love to tell you the article in question was an analysis of the current the situation in Syria, but I'm guessing it dealt with either a) celebrities, b) farts or c) both a and b.) Sure, I do a great job in public of playing with my children, looking out for their safety, ensuring they’re not bothering anyone else. But back at home, it’s a different story. Despite all the time I spend away from my family, whether at work, on travel, or on deployment, when I get back home I spend an awful lot of time reading books and articles, checking Facebook and Twitter, watching television. I may be home, but I am not fully present.
It’s not social media that’s to blame, or technology in general. I truly believe that advances in connectivity have made life better for us in this modern age. But even if I didn’t have a tablet or smartphone on me at all times, I would still be lost in my own thoughts or busy doing chores around the house. Because let’s be honest, spending time with children, even your own children, is not always intellectually stimulating. (Let's be more honest: it can be downright mind-numbing, and the psychic rewards of spending time with your children don't come as quickly as the psychic rewards for other, more selfish activities.) Sure, rough-housing and tickling is fun, as they laugh uncontrollably. But the quieter moments, when they need me to get down on the floor and join their game, or jump-start some imaginative fort or pirate ship building with sofa cushions, or to quote a good friend, “to not just play, but be playful,” that’s the hard part. That’s when the mind wanders to seemingly more pressing matters: the issue at work, the memo that needs revision, the scandal in the news, the blog topic waiting to be explored...
I’m not suggesting that I need to be fully immersed in my children’s activities every second of the day. Certainly they need space to play on their own, to let their imaginations flourish and to learn how not be bored, without my constant interaction. But my default setting is “go play, Daddy is reading something right now,” when that should be the exception, only when each child is at a point where they need down time.
Making myself “present” should extend beyond parenting as well. How often during conversations with co-workers do I quickly tune out and mentally review my to-do list for the day? So immersed in seemingly urgent “inbox maintenance” and “task completion”, I lose sight of what’s truly important, making real connections with those around me.
As an introvert, I understand that my default setting is to pull away, to re-charge. And that’s fine, but I must also be prepared to re-engage with my full attention. As soon as my child, my wife, my co-worker seeks me out, I need to put down the Ipad, or minimize the Outlook window, and be present.