“I want to go play in the playground. I want to go play in the playground. I want to go play in the playground,” the little girl repeated over and over like a CD skipping (remember those?!). She repeated this probably about fifteen times before her mom looked up from her phone. Mom looked sweetly at her little girl and said, “We can’t go to the playground, love. We’re watching your sister play. Look at her go!! Wow, did you see that?” The mom’s tone was loving and kind. She was clearly a skilled parent who could shift gears and be back in connection in an instant.
After a moment she looked back down to her phone again, immersed in whatever it was she had to take care of. Her little girl took notice soon after.
“Mama, mama, mama, mama…” she called. The mom didn’t seem to be hearing it at all. She seemed to be “in the zone” on her phone taking care of her juggling act of working mom-ly duties.
“Mama, mama, mama…” it didn’t stop. At this point she was crawling on her mom, who didn’t seem to register that she was being called. She was clearly dealing with something important on her phone. I felt for the little girl. I felt for the mom. I have been in both of their shoes and I know how hard it is on either end. I’ve been the daughter whose mom was check-out with intense life circumstances. And I’ve been the mother who juggles a lot and has left my daughter hanging on more than one occasion.
“Mama, mama,” she kept trying to get mom’s attention. After a few minutes of this mom finally looked up. Right away, her eyes sparkled as she looked at her girl and pulled her in close. “Hi sweetie! I’m so happy we get to spend the afternoon together. I haven’t had time with you in so long!”
I have no idea what their circumstances were. But the mom had a posture, an air of someone who was holding a lot and doing the best she can. This was a mom doing the very best she could in that moment. This was a child needing her mama and doing what she needed in order to be seen. She just wanted to be seen.
In this day and age we parents are often like a circus act, juggling and balancing so many moving parts while standing on our heads. For most of us, we aren’t rested. We aren’t supported. We aren’t nourished with everything we need to thrive. So we juggle, we hold it all together. It can often feel like it’s a trade-off—that we either fail our children or we fail at our job, but either way no one is winning.
What children need is presence. And what we parents often need is time. When we don’t give our presence to our child when s/he is asking, we lead them to feel unseen, unheard, unimportant. The little girl I was watching had to repeat herself 15-20 times to even get her mama to look up at her. Not because her mom was a bad parent or didn’t love her daughter. The way she connected when she did look up was beautiful. She was sweet and loving, nurturing and gentle.
She just wasn’t present. So when she told her daughter, “I’m so happy we get to spend the afternoon together,” but then looked back down on her phone right away, she disconnected. And this created a confusing situation for her child. Each time her mom didn’t answer, the daughter raised the volume, got more in her face, became more whiney. She ramps up her demands. She keeps pushing for the attention and connection that she deserves as a little one. If the mom could just take a pause and let her daughter know, “I hear you. I know you are there and you matter to me,” the daughter’s anxiety about getting mom’s attention would have settled.
We need to let our kids know what’s going on when we’re not responding to them right away. Otherwise, they can feel unseen, unheard. Repeated experiences of this lead children to internalize a negative perception of themselves that they are not important or worthy of being seen and heard.
Let me be clear. It’s ok to need a moment. It’s ok to send a message or check in with work if you need to sometimes. This is just a part of being a parent. But be sure and include your child so that s/he knows it’s not that they’re not important to you. Let your child know that you need to take care of something and you’ll be with them in a minute (be honest about the timing). Let them know you hear them.
This mama was clearly a wonderful parent with so much love for her children. She also clearly had a lot on her plate. I hold no judgment. But I know what kids need and what can shift a simple interaction like this to a formative experience that can impact a child’s sense of self-worth and value.
When you need to take care of something and your child is calling you, answer them. Here are some ways you can let them know…
“I hear you calling me. I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done with this.”
“I want to hear what you have to say. I’m going to finish this really quick so I can give you my full attention.”
“I’m here, sweetie. And there’s something I need to take care of. Once I’m done I’ll be ready to connect with you fully.”
“Thank you for your patience, sweetie. I know it can be hard to wait while mommy finishes this and I want you to know I see you.”