How can you parent, if you aren’t present with your kids?
When I first became a parent, like any new parent, I read parenting books and child development guides. I wanted to know how to parent better — how to be the best parent I could be.
Over the years, much of what I read has proven to be unusable, either because of the special needs of my children, or because it no longer fit with my values.
One thing has stuck out to me, however.
You can’t parent well, if you aren’t present.
We all know the value of quality time with our kids. Spending time with them, really being with them, is important. Paying attention to your children reaps benefits long after our kids are no longer children.
But those snatches of quality time can’t and doesn’t replace quantity of time with our kids.
You can’t parent at all, if you aren’t actually there.
In order to be a parent, you have to be around your kids.
Long distance parenting isn’t a thing.
And this isn’t a dig against non-custodial parents, or parents that work full time. Even stay-at-home-parents can fall into the trap of not actually being around our kids. We are in other rooms while they play, we’re inside while they are outside, or we’re busy while they eat.
And we aren’t actually around our kids — we parent from a distance.
I used to think that if I was within earshot, if I could get there quickly whenever there was a problem, I was a good parent.
But there are so many missed opportunities when I’m not there around them.
I used to justify not eating with my kids as “my break” or “they’re fully occupied, so now I can get xyz done”. But none of what I was using as an excuse was helping my kids.
Monkey see, monkey do.
A big part of parenting is modeling the behaviour you want your children to have. They catch more than they are taught, after all.
As parents, our children are constantly watching us. But if we aren’t around for them to watch, how will they see?
Take my dinner-table example.
I can nip inappropriate conversations in the bud, before they get out of hand, by sitting at the table.
I can model appropriate table manners. For example, I can gently remind that one to close their mouth while chewing, calm this one before she spills her juice, and ask the one across the table to sit before she falls.
And then there’s the opportunity to get to know my children, since they are all right there, fully engaged in the moment. We can have conversations, and practice social skills.
I can answer the deep questions of belief, value, morality, and responsibility, that always seem to come up at the dinner table.
All of that is missed if I’m not there with my kids, even if I’m still in the kitchen.
Another part of parenting is teaching. While children learn a lot on their own, from taking risks and making mistakes, they learn just as much when they are taught. I can teach so much better when my children are right beside me.
Being there with my kids doesn’t mean that I’m always with them doing what they want to do. As a single mom, I can’t do that. I have things I need to do, just to keep our home running.
So being there with my kids means that they are with me, doing what I need to do with me. And what teaching opportunities this brings! It’s fantastic.
I can teach the basics of cooking, because I have my daughter standing on a stool beside me. I can tell her exactly what I’m doing and why, and even have her do some, because she’s there and I’m there.
And I can hand-over-hand teach my little one how to clean something properly, because she’s right there beside me.
We do things as a family, and the older kids teach the younger ones too. All because we’re together, and I’m there with my kids.
Instilling good habits
A huge part of parenting is correcting and training children in good habits.
You can’t train your kids for self-control if you aren’t there to help guide them.
Like using a template to draw, the template has to be there while you’re learning. But eventually, do it enough times, and you won’t need the template anymore.
Kids need that template too, but if their grown up isn’t there to hold the template for them, they’ll never get the training down to be able to do it independently.
My lack of presence with my kids leads to so many bad habits. From a lack of basic manners (forgetting to say please or thank you), to being careless with things and people, so many habits are simply because I wasn’t there.
I didn’t hold them to a standard.
I didn’t train them, because I couldn’t, when I’m not there.
But when I’m present with my kids, working with them, I can give them that training. I help ingrain their manners and thoughtfulness.
So when circumstances dictate that I can’t be there, they have the habits to carry them through, until I can be there.
Big emotions, little kids
Finally, part of my job as a parent is to help them help themselves.
Children grow and develop the ability to reason, to regulate and control their emotions, and to think things through, over time. They need a parent to help them develop these abilities.
If I’m not there, big emotions and impulsive decisions get them into trouble.
But if their parent is present, kids get the emotional support they need. They have the outside influence to help them make better choices. I can walk them through the steps to deal with anger, anxiety, or disappointment. I can celebrate with them and share their joy.
When I walk beside them, I’m able to prompt decision-making steps that lead to good choices.
We all miss out when parents aren’t present with their kids.
I miss out on so much when I’m not there. I don’t get to witness the joy of discovery.
For example, I would have missed teaching my daughter to tie her shoe if I had been too busy. And then seeing the look on her face when it clicked and she did it on her own was my reward for being present.
I got to celebrate that milestone with her because I was there.
If I’m not there, I don’t hear the cute sayings. When someone asked me if my daughter was trying to climb the walls one day, she piped up and informed them that she couldn’t — they were too slippery.
It’s a story I can share with smiles now, because I was there.
I can’t help with the too-big-for-a-child emotions if I’m not with my kids. One of my girls struggles a lot with anxiety over changes. But we can work through them without traumatizing my daughter, because I am with her. Transitions aren’t as big a deal, because she knows I’m there.
Even when the tears come, my being there provides security for her.
You have to be there to get it.
Parenting requires a parent being present with their kids.
Yes, we as parents have lives of our own, outside of our kids. And yes, we need breaks, we need to work, and sometimes, as in my case, sometimes our kids aren’t with us all the time.
But little snatches of “quality time” doesn’t make up for all the missed opportunities.
I still struggle with this. It’s so tempting to want to just get things done while the kids are busy elsewhere. And it’s easy to fall into the habit of doing just one more thing while they play, eat, sleep or whatever. I admit it’s a lot easier to cook, clean and do a whole lot of other things without someone underfoot.
But that isn’t the kind of parent I want to be.
If I want to be a good parent, and prepare my kids for whatever life throws at them, I have to be there.