Parents Are Distracted

We have a new “baby” in our house—a puppy named Lily. Now, it’s been years since I had my three little ones at my feet, but when we brought her home, I thought, No sweat. I can handle a little bundle of joy in my life again, albeit a furry one.

And yes, those mama instincts did come roaring back, though I forgot how much attention little ones clamor for, how needy they can be. But it’s more than that—puppies and kids want you to listen at that moment.

Telling a child (or a puppy) to “give me a minute,” or “when I’m off the phone,” or trying to finish up what you were doing and giving them lip service just doesn’t cut it. They know when you’re listening and when you’re not—and one way or another, you pay the price for the latter. If I don’t listen to my puppy, I get a messy house. If I don’t listen to my kids, I miss making an emotional connection. Neither is a good option, and both have long-term consequences.

As parenting editor at Highlights, I get to work for a company that believes in listening (and responding) to children. Each year, we survey kids ages 6–12 on what it’s like to be a kid today, and we publish a report called State of the Kid. In the past, we’ve asked kids about issues such as bullying, kindness, honesty, and safety. This year, we asked kids about parental distraction. Now, most stories on parental distraction highlight either the safety issue (driving while texting or talking) or the selfishness angle.

But we felt we could offer two different perspectives: what kids actually see, hear, and experience in today’s fast-paced, multitasking world of family life; and what the experts suggest—that if we aren’t paying attention, we’re missing one huge opportunity to connect with our kids.

We heard from kids loud and clear (62 percent of survey respondents) who told us that yes, they feel their parents are sometimes distracted when they want to talk to them. And what was the number one distraction? Technology—particularly cell phones. Not a shocker really, as we’re all attached to our phones. But surprisingly, even the littlest ones (at age 6) knew when their parents were paying attention, and what’s more, when they weren’t.

So what does this mean for our family relationships? I think back to the Highlights mantra of leaning in and listening to kids. We parents have to pay attention. We need to be available when our kids want to talk, to set boundaries so they’ll learn when it’s okay to interrupt us, and to spend time with each child individually so he knows he has your undivided attention and can open up.

Michele Borba, an author and parenting expert who worked with us on the report, says that we parents need to realize that our kids are picking up on our distractedness. She advises us to push the pause button every once in a while to make sure we are connecting regularly with our kids, because the foundation of parenting is making that emotional connection. If we’re not paying attention, we will lose out. There are no take-backs.

How best to do this? Carve out sacred unplugged time each day, whenever it works for your family, to just enjoy each other without distraction. Technology certainly isn’t going away, but the key is striking a balance between doing what needs to get done while also being available and engaged with your kids.

And to do that, you may just need to lean in and listen.

Sylvia Barsotti

Sylvia Barsotti, mom to Luke, Juliana, and David, is the Director of Parenting Editorial for Highlights.