No one, not your spouse or partner, your best friend, your colleagues, your relatives or your neighbours, will value time spent with you quite like your own children do. To them, just five minutes of your undivided attention, are worth a whole day of half-listening.
Like a lot of busy parents holding down full-time jobs, my wife and I juggle work with family and we never reach the right balance. We are fortunate to have full-time jobs and very fortunate to have four children, so I am not complaining, but we should make time because they are getting older quickly – now eighteen, sixteen, thirteen and eleven. Within the blink of an eye they have grown from little ones to young adults and within another blink they will soon be off to university, work and independent living. They will have homes of their own and I’ll still be shouting ‘dinner’s ready’ up the stairs.
I look through the family albums and I see so much we have done together. But I am constantly puzzled by how few events I can actually remember. I am there in the scene, arms around my children, smiling at the camera, sitting in our tent eating spam in the middle of a Yorkshire field, perching on a quay side eating Devonshire ice cream, or huddling on a windswept beach in Suffolk. I know was there, I have proof; our house is adorned with ornaments and pictures brought back from family trips.
It is not that I have a particularly poor memory; the problem is this: I was always there in body but seldom there in mind. I was often thinking about other things – usually a book I was working on at the time, a course I was about to run, or the familiar stresses and strains of a career spent in teaching and school leadership. But at least I was there.
Being there in body is not enough. I need to be there in mind too. I have to attend – listen, pay attention, respond meaningfully, remembering at all times that I am making memories. I have always said that a family holiday is not really for us adults; it is for making memories that the children will remember when they are older. I still believe this is true and I am pleased that the children have childhood experiences they can remember. But I should have been making indelible memories for myself too. For when we grown-ups retire from work and start reflecting back on our lives, how many of us will conclude that we should have spent more time at work and less time at home? And of the time we did spend at home, how many of us will wish we hadn’t concentrated so much on what our children were saying? Think about it, what else could possibly have been more important? How many of us would rather their memories of work were more vivid than their recollections from home? Colleagues will forget us as soon as we’ve left, but our families never will.
Perhaps it’s due to that inconvenient truth that many of us are more polite at work than we are at home. Family life does not require us to act with professionalism, no matter how much more we love our families than we do our colleagues – no offence intended, I have super colleagues! I can sustain interest at work far more readily than I can at home. When a line manager or colleague gives me instructions, I can listen intently, or certainly give that impression; but when my wife gives me instructions, she knows full well it is going in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I don’t even pretend I’m listening.
Twenty years we’ve been married – twenty years of conversations and I can’t remember any of them.
But I can attend and concentrate at work when I have to. I can chair a meeting at work and recall with reasonable clarity what was said in it. I can give a child at school my undivided attention and remember a comment they made to me months later – it is my job. But ask me what my own children said to me at lunch yesterday and I struggle to remember the detail. Why is that?
Showing and telling to an appreciative audience is an important part of a child’s growth and development, not to mention their self-worth. I know this because I say it at school all the time. Children need and deserve a captive crowd to whom they can show and tell their achievements. But as a parent I worry if I’m a cardboard cut-out audience. I smile and make positive noises at the right moments, whilst thinking about something else.
When I am ready to stop working and stop stressing about other things, when I am ready to be a fully interactive and appreciative audience for my children, they will be children no longer and that worries me. Perhaps that is the way it is and always has been for us parents. It is why grandparents are so cherished by their grandchildren.
It is possible I have done myself a gross injustice here – my wife thinks so. There have been plenty of times when I have not been thinking about work and instead have been thinking intently about my children. And that’s just the point. While they talk to me, I look at them, cuddle them, worry about them, wonder if they are healthy and happy, wonder how they’re getting on at school, wonder if they need a haircut, worry if they’re not eating enough, or eating too much, worry if anything is worrying them – and all this while they are still talking to me. Perhaps there is always a sub-text or a distraction within every conversation you have with your own children, precisely because of these parenting worries that you cannot switch off when you focus on their faces. But all they really want is for you to listen!
As another year begins, I will resolve to make space in my busy diary to stop, look and listen. I will make special effort to be there and remember.
Published in Bury Free Press, Friday 4th January 2019