My father was a quiet solitary man. He lived most comfortably in the silent land of the spirit. Navigating the treacherous terrain of the busy world was not his natural skill. He carried about him the slightly bemused air of someone who could not quite figure out the details of his awkward life.
My father liked order, schedule, and calm. This made the intricate and messy complexities of fatherhood an almost inconceivable mystery.
For many of us parenting is not a natural skill. We did not arrive at the task of child-rearing with a well-equipped tool box for guiding our off-spring through the early years of their lives. The mistakes we accumulate are legion and it is tempting to long for a chance to do over what we know we did so poorly the first time around.
I think sometimes of the skills I wish I had developed earlier as a father.
There really is only one thing I wish I had been able to do more consistently throughout my parenting. The skill I most wish I had mastered is the ability to pay close attention. It may sound simple enough, but there is nothing easy about paying attention.
I wish I had understood sooner that all behaviour is communication. A child’s actions and words are not random. A child is using the tools available to her to communicate. Everything a child says or does is the child’s way of telling us something as she tries to find her way through the confusing world she experiences. If we pay careful attention the child will teach us what we need to learn to help her navigate through her world more successfully.
When we attend carefully to a child we let that child know that he is valuable. We are teaching him to validate his own feelings and perceptions. When struggle to do the hard work of listening deeply to the child, we are training the child to attend carefully to himself. We help him honour his own inner world and we help to free him to be driven less by the external demands and expectations that constantly try to shape how he lives.
The writer of the Letter of James suggests the essential qualities that make it possible to truly pay attention when he writes, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3:17)
The problem with paying attention is that it requires lots of time, patience, and openness. I must be willing to let go of my expectations about how life is going to unfold. Paying attention means laying aside my agendas and opening to the child as the child’s life presents itself, not as I think it should be.
It is so tempting to parent from irritation. It is so easy to fall into the trap of disciplining, not for the true well-being of the child but in an attempt to make my life more comfortable. If the tradition of Christian teaching has been obsessed about one sin, it is the sin of hypocrisy. When I pretend to myself and my child that I am disciplining her for her own good, when in reality I am simply trying to ease the pain of listening to interminable whining, begging, nagging, or pleading, I am not being honesty with myself or with my child. What we call “discipline” is often a cheap shortcut for the longer harder route of taking the time to really be with a child and listen to the deeper message the child’s behaviour is attempting to convey.
My father was born in 1910. He grew up in an environment in which children were taught to be mostly invisible. He was well trained to disappear. He was certainly never encouraged to acknowledge his own feelings, express his deeper inner self, or validate his own perceptions of the world.
My father died twenty-six years ago. I wish now that he and I had known better in the time we were together, how to really pay attention to one another.