Young children can make us feel insanely popular. Their relentless requests for our attention begin at birth, and we remain in high demand throughout the toddler, preschool, early grade school years. Our ranking on the Popularity Scale then takes a sharp dive during adolescence, and it tanks miserably in high school. By college we’re lucky if they take our calls. (Ouch. That one hits too close to home.)
Meeting our children’s attention needs can be exhausting, especially if we haven’t learned the simple secret that makes giving quality time relaxing, invigorating, enlightening, and fulfilling: Our presence is not only enough, it is better than enough.
It was a relief to discover that my children were born inner-directed, active self-learners with “play” ideas of their own. They certainly didn’t need mine, which only served to alter and redirect theirs.
It was relief to make the switch from being my baby’s entertainer to taking a front row seat as her audience. I already knew what I liked to do and how I saw the world, but every moment I spent quietly observing deepened my understanding and appreciation of her. I was discovering my child.
The benefits my child derived from “wants nothing quality time” were visible as well. Children revel in the glow of our quiet attention, even as babies — especially as babies, because of their ultra-awareness and sensitivity. “Babies are more conscious than we are,” cognitive researcher Alison Gopnik has noted. “Consciousness narrows as a function of age. As we know more, we see less.”
When our attention is not dependent on performances, games, or smiles, children receive powerfully affirming messages:
I am interesting.
I am competent.
I am creative.
I am a desirable companion.
I am enough.
During a recent consultation with Amy about her 3 year old son Liam’s adjustment to their new baby, I recommended a few minutes of one-on-one time each day and, if it was at all possible to arrange, an outing together once each week, which would ensure they wouldn’t be interrupted by the baby.
Amy later sent this me this reflection:
“I was thinking about something you said in our conversation about the “special time” that I spend with Liam. I had commented that it can sometimes feel to me that time is squandered when we spend it somewhere that he’s completely engaged in what he’s doing and not paying any outward attention to me. You said, “But those are the best uses of that time. What a gift to give him, saying, “You are enough, and what you want to do is enough.” What a relief it was to hear that!
And it occurred to me today, as I reflected on that comment, that you had given me a similar gift in telling me that I was enough. That my quiet presence is enough, and that in the same way that it’s a gift to tell Liam that he doesn’t need to entertain me, it’s a similar gift to tell myself that I don’t need to entertain him. My presence is enough.”
When I asked Amy if I could share her note, she agreed and then added:
“That’s funny, I was just thinking of this today when Liam chose to stay home and play with Legos during our “just Mommy and Liam” time. I asked him a few times whether he wanted to go somewhere, and he finally just looked at me and said, “Want you to sit there,” pointing to the spot next to him on the floor where I happened to already be sitting. If that isn’t a request for “wants nothing” time, I don’t know what is!”
I share more about quality time, child-led play, and respectful care in my book:
I also recommend Magda Gerber’s books, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby, Lisa Sunbury’s wonderful article, “Emptying Our Minds to be More Present With Babies“, and “Wants Nothing Quality Time and the Capacity to be Alone” by Jinny Prais
(Photo by Patrik Jones on Flickr)