Attention: A Priceless Resource

A friend who is a reading specialist was telling me the other day about the tricks of her trade. "Sometimes I think that the most important role I play is just being there--being a friendly presence, paying attention while they learn to read." I was surprised to hear her say that--I've seen her skills when she works with my older son--but it also rang true. She certainly is a warm, loving presence. Perhaps having that appreciative undiluted attention as he struggles to master this process is more important than the specific techniques.

It sure got me thinking--again--about just paying attention. I wonder if we have anything more valuable to offer our children than our full attention. I doubt it. And what an amazing resource it is. Here's something for our children that we don't have to pay for, don't have to arrange transportation to get to, don't have to prepare for. It requires no gadgets. It's available right around the house --in every house. It can be called on at a moment's notice, and can fit easily into any sized time slot at any time of the day.

Yet is there anything harder for parents to do than pay undivided attention to our children? It's sure a struggle for me. My son wants to show me the treasures that he and a friend got at a porch sale. I look, but half my mind is on what to have for dinner. He wants me to watch him race his cars and I try to do it while reading the newspaper. My other son wants me to look at his bug collection, and I give it a quick glance and compliment before turning back to the insurance form. He wants to explain the idea he has for a better mousetrap. We are trying to get our teeth brushed, I'm tired, and the diagrams are obscure. It is a small victory to settle down in bed and study them together--to give him my undivided attention.

Or I think of the time they wanted to invite a friend to the pool, and I couldn't figure out why I was so unenthusiastic. When we got there, I remembered. They are both deeply involved in learning new swimming skills, and they wanted to show me. "Watch me dive, Mommy." "Watch me swim." "Watch me jump, Mommy." "Watch me." "Watch me." I'd had it in mind that that would be my role, so I was willing to give it a try. But paying undivided attention to two children simultaneously already defies the laws of physics. No wonder I didn't want to add a third "watch me" to the chorus.

As parents, we are called on to defy the laws of physics all the time. How often are we expected to pay attention to two children at once, or to the children and the phone (or the dinner, or the housework, or the spouse) at the same time? No wonder our attention doesn't feel like an abundant, readily available resource. But I'm convinced that its a valuable one--much more valuable than we know. Every time we put all the other pulls on our attention aside and offer it fully to a child--every time we really examine the bug collection, take in every little detail of the porch sale treasure, fully master the intricacies of the mousetrap design--we help them claim a piece of themselves.