To mark the beginning of a new year, I decided to be one in a million on January 1, 2011, by tuning into Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, OWN. I viewed the lineup of new shows, from decluttering houses to master classes to getting your OWN show. What piqued my interest most was a show entitled Kidnapped by the Kids, the premise of which is children forcing parents to disconnect so they can reconnect and to unplug from technology so they can plug back into relationships.I watched the first episode intently and saw three children struggling to stay connected with their father, a consultant who traveled every week for his job. His absence was putting a major strain on the marriage and on the family as a whole. What really stood out was that even when this father was home on the weekends, he couldn’t let go of work. He was continuously checking emails or being distracted by technology while doing things with the family. His children challenged him to one week of camping without technology. It was almost like a marriage proposal with a promise of love and devotion. This father’s children were figuratively down on one knee, crying out for time, attention, and connection. They wanted his engagement.
The Age of InterruptionThomas Friedman, renowned author and New York Times columnist, tells of a trip he took to the Amazon rain forest where he disconnected from all electronic devices. Taking a step back allowed him to see that we have moved from the Industrial Age, to the Information Age, to the Age of Interruption. We have become supreme multi-taskers because we feel that the world is moving fast. So learning to answer the phone, cook dinner, watch television, and answer our child’s questions all at the same time is commonplace.
Although juggling may seem like an enviable skill, scientists note that switching back and forth between tasks energizes the regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination while simultaneously disrupting the regions that specialize in memory and learning. It is no wonder that the words, “continuous partial attention,” and “absent presence,” have been used to describe life in the Age of Interruption. Being engaged with your children can be difficult, given the inordinate number of distractions in the modern world.
The Engaged Parent
Engagement is defined as moments in time when you are 1) completely absorbed in an activity regardless of time or physiological needs (hunger or thirst), 2) involved in the present moment, and 3) and intrinsically motivated to take part in the experience. You are in flow, and the end goal is often overlooked or used as an excuse to be in the process.Parental engagement is a mixture of mindfulness and flow. What are you choosing to pay attention to when you are with your children, your cell phone or celebrating the cake that just came out of the Easy Bake Oven?
Paying attention to your children sets the stage for engagement and connection. You are creating mental models that form a secure base of attachment for their growth and development. You are promoting your children’s social and emotional competence and their ability to have secure adult relationships.To begin thinking about how to be an engaged parent, it is important to get a an informal baseline assessment. Think of the time you spend with your children.
- Do you carry your cell phone into the play room?
- Is your laptop with you on the breakfast table while the children are eating?
- Do you make a phone call in the car on the way home from school?
- Are you sending a text while you are on the playground pushing the swing?
Ways to Connect and Engage
Every moment with your child is an opportunity to connect and engage. If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above or if you think you need to reengage and experience flow more frequently when playing with your children, here are some suggestions.
- Use your strengths. There is a relationship between moments of engagement and deploying your signature strengths. Learn about your strengths, and use them while interacting with your children. For example, if Creativity is a top strength, you could find an opportunity to make something new such as a mosaic painting or a spaceship out of a box. If Gratitude is a top strength, you could help your child write a thank-you note or create a thank-you collage for a friend. If Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, you could take a nature walk or lie down and look at the clouds together.
- Mindfully unplug. Make every effort to put electronic devices away when you are spending time with your children. Be in the moment and intentionally leave out any distractions.
- Slow down. How many times have you heard people say, “Enjoy them now because they will be gone to college before you know it,” or “There will come a time in your life when your kids won’t need you as much, so enjoy it while you can.” Take these pieces of wise advice, and enjoy your children while they need your love and nurturing.
- Remember “Attention amplifies everything.” This phrase is used by Marcus Buckingham in his book, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. Giving time and attention to your children not only provides an opportunity for engagement, but it will also build your child’s social competence and offer a preventative strategy for behavior management. Many of us lead busy lives, but when you are home, be there for your kids. Read them a story, make a sundae or throw the ball in the backyard.
Don’t let your family life come to a point where your children feel the need to kidnap you. As Thomas Friedman eloquently recounts about his visit to the rain forest, “Being disconnected from the web puts one in touch with the web of life.”
Get down on one knee, look your children in the eye, and make a promise to play, engage, and connect. They will willingly accept your proposal.
Buckingham, Marcus, (2009). Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest Most Successful Women Do Differently. Thomas Nelson.
Friedman, T. (2006, July 5). The Age of Interruption. The New York Times.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003, 2013). Parenting from the Inside Out 10th Anniversary edition: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. New York: Tarcher.
In the tent courtesy of Jay Gooby
Benjamin and Melissa 2 (at the swingset) courtesy of James Jordan
Texting while driving courtesy of Jason Weaver
Endless fun with a cardboard box courtesy of Cathy Stanley-Erickson
Hand in hand courtesy of Flavio@Flickr