This might be the most-used word in my vocabulary, followed closely by “Uh-huh” and “Just a minute.” And almost always aimed at my kids.
I don’t mean to tune my kids out. But sometimes I’m distracted: trying to finish up those last few lines of an important email, edit the blog post I didn’t quite finish before they got off the bus, pay attention to a recipe. Other times I’m simply overwhelmed by the jumbled noise of excited voices tumbling over one another, trying to be the first heard. Tuning out can seem like a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the chaos of family life and competing obligations without losing it.
The problem is that “mm-hmm”-ing doesn’t really buy me any more time or help me focus. It still breaks my concentration when I’m aware that the kids want me for something, and they’re never satisfied by a vague non-response, so they start buzzing around me with even more urgency as I get more and more frustrated. It’s not unusual for me to snap: “Oh, for crying out loud, I just needed five minutes!” and for them to slink away sadly, or for them to accuse me later of agreeing to something I never would agree to if I was paying attention, like unlimited video game time for the rest of the week or chocolate chips for lunch. (This is when “mm-hmm” really gets you in trouble.)
I started writing this post before I left for our vacation yesterday, but mulled it over on the four-plus hour car ride. As I sat in the passenger seat, my kids rattled off an endless stream of questions and observations…and I had no trouble listening, really hearing, and responding. Patiently, with good humor and detail and kindness…not rushed, vague and with half of my thoughts somewhere else.
What’s the difference between being a passenger on a car ride and everyday life? Well, in the car, I have nothing else to do. I can’t read or do much work (get car sick). Can’t cook. Nobody’s expecting me to dust the dashboard as I sit there. And when there are no other pressures or expectations, it’s quite easy to really listen to what my kids are saying…and respond without a single “mmm-hmm.”
Sometimes it’s easy to talk to my kids when I’m baking, or sweeping, or loading the dishwasher. But even then, I have to struggle against letting all the millions of thoughts and worries of everyday life crowd my brain. The hardest time to pay attention is when I’m on my computer. During those times, I have to make a physical effort to divert my focus. Look up, look ‘em in the eye, and listen.
There are always things that need to be done, and sometimes I’ll be distracted no matter what. But today I’m making a mini-resolution to look up – away from the computer screen or the pot bubbling on the stove – look the child in the eye, and give a real response to whatever he or she is saying. Sometimes my answer might simply be, “You know, I’m doing something really important right now and have to concentrate. Can you come back in ten minutes?” The funny thing is, when I do think to actually tell my kids – with words instead of just impatient gestures and sighs – that I’m too busy to talk, they are usually happy to come back later. We all feel better, and it only takes a few seconds.
Bad habits are hard to break, and sometimes I’m simply so engrossed in something that breaking away is very hard. I know I won’t ever do this perfectly. But just by being mindful of it, I hope to help my kids feel more heard, and to break out of that cycle of distraction/frustration/accidentally giving permission for chocolate chip-fueled XBox marathons. Even if just a few times a day that I would have tuned them out, I listen instead…well, that’s an improvement. And the more I look up, look ‘em in the eye and listen, the more habitual it’ll start to feel.
In fact, I can hear the patter of little feet heading my way right this second. Time to put today’s mini-resolution into practice. Are you with me?