If any of you are like me (which I’d like to think most people are, otherwise, I’m simply an anomaly), then whenever you spend time with your loved ones, there is an agenda. For example, whenever my daughter asks me to perform one of Mike Adamick’s Awesome Science Projects with her, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the next thing I have to do, once we’re done, like grading assignments in my online classes or mowing the lawn before it gets dark. So what, you might ask? We all do this. Well, here’s the problem with it…
Every time our minds wander from the task we are presented with, we lose our ability to be mindfully present. Studies show that multitasking causes us to do several things poorly, and our shortcomings grow as we add additional tasks. The reason for this is biological.
Multitasking, such as conversing with a child while responding to emails, perusing a social network feed, and listening to music simultaneously, may be viewed positively, and one may take pride in being “capable” of handling multiple tasks at any one time. Rubenstein, Meyer, and Evans (2001) showed that, during the leap from one task or thought process to another, a chain of events occurs in our brains. The brain must first make the decision to leave the first process in favor of the next, but then mentally drop the set of rules governing the first activity and activate the set of rules governing the next. In this exchange of behaviors, rule activation takes the longest amount of time and can range significantly, depending on the complexity of the tasks being switched.
All things considered, multitasking can take us far longer to perform the same group of tasks, than had we performed the tasks one at a time, with full focus dedicated to each. Going back to the situation with my daughter, if I am not fully present with her, then I am doing her a great disservice in a number of ways. First, by not being mindfully present, I am unable to notice the subtly intricacies of the moment, and regardless of the age of the child, they notice this, and what’s worse, they feel it. Second, by setting the standard like this, I am teaching my daughter through my example that it is acceptable behavior.
When I made the conscious decision that I was going to break the cycle of inattentiveness and neglect that plagued my family when I was growing up, this type of example is precisely the one I knew I had to avoid.
This Father’s Day, I want to suggest a challenge. I challenge all of you parents out there – both fathers AND mothers – to take the time to be mindfully present with your children at least once during this weekend of festivities. To do so, first, listen carefully for an invitation to interact with your children. It may be overt and explicit, such as a little boy begging for Dad to come outside and play in the sand with him. It may even be implicit, such as a toddler expressing boredom, inadvertently seeking guidance in learning how to entertain oneself.
Regardless of the type of invitation, once you hear it, drop everything. Forget about what you need to do later on. Put down the phone, tablet, or computer. It will wait for you. Set aside the chores and any other agenda that may seem pressing, and immerse yourself into interaction with your children. Intentionally be mindfully present with one another and allow the interaction to unfold organically, without pressure or time constraints.
As you do this, you will likely find that the interaction, regardless of what it is, will be one of the most meaningful and memorable moments in recent memory, and for your child, that represents one more moment that he or she can look back on with fondness as they grow older, and that is the essence of parenting: being a part of our children’s memories tomorrow.