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mini-resolution: look ‘em in the eye and listen

by Meagan Francis on January 27, 2012

Hmm?”

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?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tragic Sandwich January 27, 2012 at 3:13 pm

One of the things we’re trying to do is spend more time actually playing with Baguette. It’s easy to do other stuff and just hang out near her, but that’s not really as good for her, particularly right now. She really needs that direct interaction and involvement from us, and we’re figuring out new ways to provide it.

Our challenge, as it is for everyone, is time. How do we get home from work, eat dinner, clean up, walk the dog, play with Baguette, and get her and ourselves ready for the next day? Two parents aren’t enough, and we only have one child.

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Annie January 27, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I can so relate to this post. In fact, my kids have started throwing the “Just a minute,” line back at me every time I call them or ask them to do something. I might just write “Look up, look ‘em in the eye, and listen” on the back of my hand so the next time I’m tempted to put them off while I’m on the computer (also my main source of the problem), I’ll see it right away. Thanks for the reminder. :)

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Kim January 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Love this post. With four young boys, it’s a survival mechanism, but it usually winds up with me snapping at them when I should have just listened the first time.

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SusanP January 27, 2012 at 4:44 pm

YES! It’s hard, especially when you have several kids, and the big kids are trying to talk to you while feeding/diapering/clothing/bathing a baby or toddler who is sometimes screaming their head off.

I realized something needed to change when they started using the “hang on”, “just a minute” on me when I asked them to do something. Of course they learned it from me! Ugh!

I have already started employing the more calm/meaningful responses (looking them in the eye) lately and am noticing it helps. In the mornings when they are dying to tell me something in the rush of getting out the door, I say “I’d love to hear that story on the car ride!” (we have a 20min drive to school). They do remember to bring it back up. When I’m busy with the little ones I’m learning to calmy say “Your sister is taking up all of my attention, as soon as I’m done doing x,y,z your next”. It’s more concrete than “in a minute!”. I will also make a point to say “Thank you so much for being patient” at least once while they are waiting. It’s helping a little. And laughter – I’ll joke “Mommy sure wishes she could be an octopus so I’d have enough hands to help everyone at the same time”.

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LakeMom January 27, 2012 at 6:15 pm

This is such a great reminder, especially today. While reading this post my 7 year old interrupted me 4 times to share the lyrics to songs from “Wicked”. The struggle, I think, is discerning when you can actually pay attention and when you need to ask them to return.

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Brittnie (A Joy Renewed) January 28, 2012 at 6:23 am

I love this mini resolution. I don’t yet have kids (our first child due in May) but I nanny two boys everyday and even I can get sidetracked with the “mmm-hmm’s” from time to time. Thanks for the reminder!

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Erica @ Expatria, Baby January 28, 2012 at 6:56 am

You’re totally on to something here – the absence of distraction, of obligation, of ANYTHING to do makes it so much easier to be present for our kids. Granted, I only have one, and she’s not really verbal yet, but even she notices when I’m not 100% engaged with her, and boy can she make her displeasure known. Anyway, all this to say, I actually enjoy long-haul flights with my kid because it’s just her and me and no phones to check, no dinners to cook, no toys to put away, and it’s pretty much the only time I give her 12 straight hours of undivided attention. And that’s pretty rad.
I’ve started simulating these conditions at home with a timer, and a ban on all distractions, electronic or otherwise, for a set length of time. She and I are both happier for this system.

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jessica January 28, 2012 at 10:44 am

yes! my little guy is so full of great observations i’m going to try not to miss one!

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Magen January 29, 2012 at 1:37 am

Holy cow this is a tough one. I feel like I have this mini resolution every day! Good luck.

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Andrea | Elimination Communication January 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

We live such multitasking lives, worrying about a gazillion things, chasing after things that need getting done, and when it comes to our children (who we do all of these for in the first place), we don’t usually *listen*. When they talk about their little triumphs (look Mom, I built a tower!), we reply with “mm-hmm”. I know this too and am guilty of it. Thank you for this reminder and I will make this my mini-resolution as well.

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Alecia @ Hoobing Family Adventures January 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm

It is hard to give them your attention when you are trying to get something done. My struggle is that if I don’t watch it, I find that I am always trying to get something done. Since I know this about myself, I do make a conscious effort to stop what I am doing and validate what my daughter is asking me before I resume the task. The harder part for me is to not then go onto another task when I finish the first but instead stop and play with her.

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