Being present. It’s something most all of us struggle with in this digital, fast-paced world where screens lure us in and distract us from the depth and beauty in our lives— where there’s always new entertainment to shield us from contemplation, imagination, and the age-old “problem” of boredom.
But as much as we struggle with being present, we’re all the more likely to pass the struggle on to our children— even if we keep those children “low-tech.” A quick browse of Instagram or Pinterest will reveal the many expectations on parents to provide intricate, elaborate games, crafts, and “sensory” experiences to their children. There’s this sort of parental neurosis about shielding our kids from the natural realization that parents can’t, and don’t even necessarily want to, just play all the time. Perhaps because it is so easy to not be present with our children in the smartphone era, we tend to overcompensate to make up for it with a kind of hyper-presence.
But presence is just that— presence. You probably shouldn’t be scrolling mindlessly on your phone around your children, but you don’t have to be constantly playing on the floor with them. I’m not one to glamorize the past and I’m very grateful for the ways parenting philosophies have improved over the years. But, as many parents of older generations will confirm, parenting didn’t used to mean being a full-time entertainer. It meant protecting, teaching, comforting, guiding, disciplining, but also, sometimes, doing your own thing while your children did theirs. When did “quality time” happen? For most good parents, it happened naturally. It happened when you were finished reading the newspaper or cleaning the kitchen or making dinner. It happened naturally because most of the tasks and hobbies of life were just not as absorbing and distracting as they often are now. They allowed you to still be present, in your life, in your household, in your children’s lives, even if you weren’t constantly engaged in their activities.
Put it simply, (prior to my personal technology purge) when I used to settle into the comfy chair with my smartphone in hand and my first child at my feet, I would find myself transported. I wasn’t really in that comfy chair, hearing my son’s babble or seeing the birds outside my window or feeling the sunshine streaming in. I was looking at other peoples’ precious moments. (I don’t think I need to emphasize how sad that is.) But now, when I settle into the comfy chair with a book in my hands and tell my four-year-old that I’m going to read for a little bit while he colors, I’m still right there. I’m not necessarily coloring with him, but I’m still there for him. We’re making memories, absorbing the beauty around us, and building our relationship, even though he’s “entertaining himself.”
Now, I certainly have set times when I sit down and read to my kids, play games with them, teach them specific things, etc. Plenty of set times like that. But I try to keep far away from micro-managing their day or participating in everything. They have learned how to entertain themselves with legos or some blankets and furniture (at least for a good ten minutes!) My oldest has an incredible imagination and he now gets to teach that skill to his little brothers. Ask the experts and they’ll tell you— kids need to be free to be bored. Otherwise, they’ll turn right to our generation’s technology addiction the moment they get the chance.
In the end, I don’t need my kids to grow up thinking I was always the perfect playmate or that I provided them with endless fun throughout their days. But I absolutely do want them to grow up knowing that I was present. That I loved our home and wanted to be there. That I loved being around them. And that if I wasn’t focusing complete and constant attention on them, I was still focusing it on good things. I was focusing it on things that were tangible and real— things I could explain to them and share with them. I was focusing it on things that connected us to each other and to our beautiful reality— rather than away from it.