We’ve all heard it.
What our kids need more than anything is our presence. For us to really be there with them.
And so many of us try so hard to be present. We listen and respond, nodding, really hearing. We ask questions, and we listen some more to the answers. We put down the magazine, the iPhone, the potato peeler. We draw and read. We get on the ground and we play with trains and little plastic animals. We eat tons and tons of fake food.
At its best, presence is not a requirement, but a joy that builds on itself.
Sweet-smelling child in lap with a beloved book, commenting on pictures, sibling nestled up, perfectly content to lean head on your arm and wait for her turn to flip the next page. A walk on one of those first days of fall, when we’re re-mesmerized by the colors of the fallen maples leaves, by puffy clouds in a blue sky, and happy to take 15 minutes going one block. One of those in-the-car conversations with a teen when you drive an extra few miles out of your way, just so that the beautiful talking doesn’t stop.
But let’s face it, sometimes we want to run away. To tune out.
Sometimes the idea of another repetitive, semi-nonsensical conversation about trains or princesses or ponies or construction trucks or, when our children get older, sixth grade social dynamics or video game intricacies, can numb the skull and all the material within. Sometimes we gaze with longing at the book we’ve been reading for the past three weeks or the undone work on our laptop or even our cool, empty pillow while pretending to nom nom yet another slice of pretend birthday cake. We. Can. Be. So. Bored. So tired. Or on our last nerve.
Because sometimes we’re angry at our child (gasp). Or worried about him. Or worried about ourselves or our parents or our marriages. Sometimes we’re distracted or just in a sour mood. Sometimes being really present in a room with another person is the hardest thing imaginable.
However, the reason that presence is so powerful, the reason that the experts advise that we offer more of it to our children is that we feel safe and connected when another person is truly (physically, attentionally, emotionally) with us. We feel seen and understood and felt, and when those conditions are in place, our mind is at its emotional best. More ready to learn and create. Less reactive and volatile and more receptive. Presence is an optimistic investment in a child, for the next 10 minutes and the next 10, 20, 60, 90 years.
No one is demanding that you be present 100% of the time, turned up to 11. Children need to learn to play and rest and just be on their own and parents are at their best when they nourish themselves as adults.
Simply being near your child and holding them in your appreciative attention can start a powerful feedback loop.
I’ve found the following on-the-spot meditation to be a helpful tool for unobtrusively but powerfully reconnecting with a child, as both a parent and a teacher.
It’s so simple.
Take 2 or 3 deep breaths and feel whichever part of your body is in contact with the floor or your chair.
Then just choose one of your child’s hands and watch, in as much detail as possible, exactly what that hand does.
Watch the whole entire hand. What is it touching or holding? What shape is it making? Is it tense or relaxed, are its movements big or little?
You can stop there and just watch, or you can generate some inner appreciation for that little (or big) starfish of a hand. Amazement at its dexterity. At its very existence, this hand that a decade ago didn’t exist, and can now wave in the air or make a fist or clap or drop cheerios onto the floor or assemble legos or swipe and tap at a screen.
Watch the thumb. Move on to the other fingers, and watch them one by one. And then watch the hand as a whole.
Oh yeah, and breathe. Slowly and deeply. Breathing is 50% of the magic in this one.
There are certain child wrangling “moves” that I categorize as Jedi mind tricks, and this is one of them. Maybe someday scientists will be able to explain exactly why this happens, but I notice that if I can focus on a child’s hand movements like this for even two or three minutes, the reset button is magically pressed. You and your child move a few pips away from from fractious, from worked up. If you’ve been breathing deeply, slowly, you might notice that your child’s breathing has also slowed down. And the positive feedback loop has begun.
Extra credit: Echo your child’s hand movements with movements of your own.
Update: As I was editing this post, one of my 13-year-old sons came into the room and asked for a hug. Which I gladly gave. He then sat very close next to me, and started reading the post aloud, in a smarmy voiceover tone. Every time he read the word “presence,” he exclaimed, “PRESENTS!? I LOVE presents!”
Cute, yes. But annoying! Distracting.
My son didn’t come into the room to bother me. He came in looking for connection. Which, as a 13-year-old, he still needs very much.
But he *was* bothering me. Very much. I really wanted to tell him to go away. I really wanted to finish this post so I could get a bunch of other stuff done. More deeply, however, I really want to honor and savor the rarer and rarer moments when he wants to be close.
So I listened to my own typed words as he read them aloud, took a deep breath and started to look at his hand. His giant hand, with the picked at fingernails. His giant, expressive, always moving, hand. Green marker on one of the knuckles. And it took a few breaths, but I started to relax out of my frustration with him. When I reached out for his hand, he squeezed mine, and said, “Nice Jedi moves, Mom.”