One evening when I was a teenager my mother was fixing dinner, and my three-year-old brother wanted to tell her something. She kept murmuring, “Mmmm-hmmm,” while obviously concentrating on her cooking. Finally, he pulled on her apron and said, “No, Mama. Listen with your eyes.” In other words, pay attention to me. Let me know I’m important enough for you to attend just to me.
When you can manage this, children get the message that they are of worth. Sometimes, of course, this is hard to do, especially when they talk at you constantly. And, frankly, most of what they say can be boring. Just do the best you can most of the time. I once read something that made a lot of sense: “Sometimes kids need a good listening to rather than a good talking to.”
Paying attention, however, means you should do more than listen to them when they talk. It also means notice them, look at them, study them, delight in their sweet faces, enjoy their gap-toothed smiles, appreciate their sturdy little bodies and their delicious little-kid smell.
This need to pay close attention holds true for all the stages of childhood. Sometimes it seems like people stop parenting when their child becomes a teenager. Just because you no longer need to monitor every oral and anal process, don’t abdicate your role altogether. The fact is, adolescence is a vulnerable age when they need you to attend to them more than ever.
Are you aware of what is happening in their lives? Do you know what classes they’re taking and how they’re doing in school? Who are their teachers and what are their favorite subjects? Do they have friends--this is a big one--and who are they? Can you tell if they’re being bullied, because they might not tell you. What are their strengths and what do they feel are their inadequacies?
I recently heard that there are classes that teach parents what to look for if their child is using drugs. What does this say about how much we are paying attention to our kids? I may be naive, but It seems to me that if parents spend a lot of time with their children, they will naturally pick up signs of unhappiness and possible drug use.
When my first four children were little, a new neighbor came to visit. We sat in the living room and talked while our kids tumbled around us. When she rose to leave, she commented, “You are the kissingest mother I’ve ever seen. When any of your kids come within arm’s distance, they get grabbed and kissed.” She was right. I felt like it was one of the privileges of parenthood.
Some people might not be comfortable with this degree of physical affection, but lightly laying a hand on a child’s shoulder while talking to him, or gently straightening his hair when he is close by will go a long way. And again, physical contact should not end when that child becomes a teenager. Touching, along with attention, also gives the message: I love you; you are important to me.
Studies have shown that children need touch like they need food to survive. We’ve all heard stories about babies in orphanages who actually died because of the lack of touch. On the other hand, babies in Africa thrive who are slung on the mother’s back all day and sleep next to her at night. I believe that not only do babies need the touch of their mother, but mothers also need the touch of their babies. One doctor said the gestation period for human babies was in fact close to eighteen months: nine months inside the mother’s womb and nine months outside, but still needing to be closely attached--sort of like the kangaroo.
As children grow, their constant need for touch may subside a little, but it never goes away. We are a sociable species who need contact, including physical contact, with others. There is even a malady called “skin hunger” which often afflicts older people who have no one to touch any more. (I realize that young mothers who have children constantly hanging on them might find this hard to believe.) The gentle touch of a mother or father speaks volumes to a child about how they feel about her whether she is two or twenty. As a daughter, and also as a mother and a mother-in-law, I still need to give and receive these tender contacts. As the saying goes, everyone needs a hug occasionally.