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I have to admit I struggle with being a fully-attentive parent. Not going to lie. I get sucked in by my phone. I get distracted by household tasks. I get carried away on my laptop. I don’t engage in conversation in the car.
My kids are 2, 2, and 4 (yup, I have twins), and it’s rough being fully-attentive with so much action underfoot. I mean, don’t get me wrong, for the last four years I have been VERY involved. There is a LOT of food preparation, diaper changing, baby carrying, book reading, sibling rivalry intervention, and the like going on constantly, but as much attention as they require, I’m still not “fully-attentive.”
I struggle with the tension of wanting the to work things out on their own, have free and imaginative play, not be hovered over and micro-managed, with the pull I have to selfishly “ignore” them. I love my kids. I mean, I REALLY love them. They are amazing, fascinating people. They are more interesting and surprising and hilarious than I ever could have imagined. They are also extremely draining, and also, ALWAYS there.
I want to be a fully-attentive parent, but not a helicopter parent. Engaged, but not their sole source of entertainment. Involved, but not overbearing. It’s a fine line. And further complicated by the battle in my heart.
My intentions aren’t pure. I want them to be independent for their good, yes, but also, mostly, for mine. I don’t want to hover because that is exhausting. I don’t want to entertain them because it is draining. I don’t want to be overly involved because it’s just plain boring. But I love them. And want the best for them. And battle my selfish desires daily.
So how do I become a full-attentive parent? How do I find that balance between coddling and neglecting?
I’m not sure if I will ever really know the BEST solution, but this is what I’m trying to put into practice for now.
I’ve discovered this is first and foremost in discerning what my kids need. It doesn’t have to be a parenting book or study. In fact, most of the time, it’s better if it isn’t. The closer I draw to Jesus in general, the more I know Him, worship Him, strengthen my connection with Him, the clearer I hear His voice, and THAT is what I need to hear above my own selfish desires. I know Jesus knows what’s best for my kids. He knows exactly how much attention they need, and how much space they should get. So I start my journey toward attentive parenthood with eyes firmly fixed on my Lord.
I want to connect with my kids, but I also want to teach them independence. It’s hard to keep these things balanced if I don’t have clear objectives. In what ways do they need to learn independence? How will we be “strategically inattentive” to foster healthy relational and personal growth? For my family, we have made the intentional choice to “force” our kids to play with one another uninterrupted or assisted while I make dinner. This is a perfect time for them to learn sharing, cooperation, problem-solving, and/or independent play.
This is my measuring stick for most interactions with my kids. All three of them are very much driven by physical touch, so as much as possible, I hold them immediately when they ask or approach me. I do my best to put down whatever I’m doing because I’ve learned that this is one of their greatest needs, and also has the greatest return on my investment relationally. One of my daughters will immediately stop throwing a fit in her car seat if you hold her hand or foot, any part you can reach. My kids just need to be held and touched, so that’s where I invest most of my attention. Find out what your kids need most, and do your best to provide that for them whenever possible.
I don’t believe cell phones are evil in and of themselves. I don’t think social media is particularly terrible either. But I have also taken different steps at various times to take a break from these distractions. I’ve deleted apps for periods of time, and then allowed myself to add them again. The most important thing has been staying sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. If I feel that Facebook is keeping me from parenting as God desires, then I need to get rid of it. But my struggle isn’t yours, so listen to the Spirit. Stay connected with Jesus, and watch what He says about how you conduct yourself. He will lead you well.
I’ve found the single most powerful, practical step I’ve taken to being a fully attentive parent is making eye contact with my kids as much as possible. It’s so simple, but so powerful. The more I look them directly in the eyes, the more they feel and understand my words. The more validated they feel in their communications. The more I am drawn to them and eager to hear what they have to say. When I really look at them, it is hard for me to imagine looking away, almost impossible to fathom being interested in a phone or a book or a task because those little eyes are watching.
I’m daily pulled away from my kids by my desires, my to-do list, my emotions, my sin. I also daily ask God for help to connect with them deeply and purposefully while still encouraging independence and freedom. It’s a tough balance and probably will be for years to come, but these five steps are how I’m approaching things today. These and a healthy helping of grace for all of us, and hopefully, they are paying attention to that.
Marie Osborne is a wife, mom, coffee drinker, loud laugher, & Jesus follower. When she isn't laughing with her husband, texting with her girlfriends, singing with her preschooler, or chasing after her toddler twins, she's probably writing at her blog while binge watching Netflix.