Give Your Children All of Your Attention. Some of the Time.

There’s a battle raging in my mind this week. It’s school vacation, and my three kids are home and constantly seeking my attention. I keep telling myself, Put down your phone! Stop getting distracted! But when I do, my other chores and responsibilities seem to call out just as loudly as my kids.

How can I be a good mother, when I have so much else to do?

Like many others, I was challenged by Erika Christakis’s article in The Atlantic about “The Dangers of Distracted Parenting” (mild language warning). Christakis warns that modern parents are easily distracted by their smartphones, leaving their children to make do with “continual partial attention.” Fixated on our screens, we tend to engage in less back-and-forth conversation with our children, and we become irritable when they interrupt us.

The parenting models of every era have had their flaws, but Christakis diagnoses the current blight of “technoference” as uniquely harmful to children:

What’s going on today is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

“The Dangers of Distracted Parenting” rightly reminds us to limit our phone use so we can be fully present with our children. But in a modern world, where our screens aren’t just optional entertainment but a vital means of earning a paycheck, paying the bills, and organizing next week’s childcare, we need to put our parenting (and our screen time) in their proper perspective.

Give All of Your Attention, Some of the Time

Parents often assume that the opposite of distracted parenting is to give children our undivided attention all of the time. We think we ought to spend every waking moment playing and talking with them—and feeling constantly guilty when we don’t.

But actually, giving children our complete attention all of the time isn’t only impossible; it’s undesirable.

Instead, we should aim to give children all of our attention, but only some of the time. In The Secret of Happy Children, Steve Biddulph recommends, “Spend half an hour of full-attention time with children each day, instead of hours of begrudged half-attention.” And Judith Locke, author of The Bonsai Child, writes: “Quality time with children is not necessarily endless time with them. . . . Children actually benefit when their parent leaves them to do other things, and then returns.”

Christakis’s article warns of the damage caused by “unpredictable” parental attention. We can minimize this simply by making our attention more predictable.

We can start by aiming to spend a bit of focused time with our children each day—a time they can count on and look forward to. Days at home could also include some planned “quiet time,” when everyone is expected to read or play quietly alone. This gives parents the chance to do something for themselves without feeling guilty.

You’re Not Just a Parent

When it comes to parenting, not all distractions are equal. There are some legitimate and important reasons for us to take our focus off our children.

Parents have always had to balance child-raising with other responsibilities. For centuries, believers have been expected to care not only for their children, but also for their spouse, parents, grandparents, neighbors, and fellow church members. Paul instructs Timothy to honor older women for “all kinds of good deeds,” which included “bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, [and] helping those in trouble” (1 Tim. 5:9).

Spending time with our spouse, helping another child, doing a chore, supporting someone in need, working, or simply having some quiet time may all be legitimate reasons to take our eyes off our children.

Beneficial Distractions

Though it may be surprising, our necessary distractions can actually help our children’s development. They can become opportunities to teach our kids that we—and they—have a mandate to honor our Maker by stewarding his creation and loving other people.

When we focus on something other than our children, they realize we all belong to a wider network of relationships and responsibilities that extends beyond our immediate family. As our children learn that other people have needs too, they develop empathy.

We can further that lesson by inviting our children to join us in the “distraction.” If we’re doing a chore or caring for someone else, we can teach them how to help. Our children don’t have to stand passively by while we do tasks; even young children can start making their own contribution to the needs of others, in line with their God-given calling.

I also find it helpful to explain to our children what’s distracting me and why it’s important. If I’m using my phone, they might assume I’m just playing a game, so I explain that I’m actually reading the news, talking with my sister, or checking my bank balance. This helps our children understand the purpose behind the distraction.

Another benefit of being occasionally occupied is that it gives our children (at least the older ones) an opportunity to practice independent play. An earlier article, also from The Atlantic, describes how unstructured, unsupervised play provides opportunities for children to practice problem-solving, risk-taking, creativity, and resilience. My husband remembers being sent outside to play as a child while his parents were working or cleaning. The things and places he discovered on his own now form some of his fondest memories.

Being a parent will always involve juggling competing demands and responsibilities. It’s neither possible nor desirable to give our children undivided attention all day. But let’s plan to give our children all of our attention some of the time, and let’s see our necessary distractions as opportunities for our children to learn skills for real life in God’s world.

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