Whenever I spend an afternoon playing with my children – actually focusing on them instead of being half-distracted by my cell phone or a conversation with a friend or something else – I always learn several new things about them.
I learn how their relationship with each of their siblings is going. I learn what they think about a lot of things in their day-to-day life.
Perhaps best of all, I get a few glimpses into what it is in life that really makes them happy.
My daughter’s eyes glow with spontaneous joy when she’s in the middle of making music or dancing or making an art project. She’s simply an artistic person.
My oldest son seems to glow with joy whenever he’s engaged in a problem to solve. He likes to be mentally and sometimes physically challenged and he enjoys the challenge itself, not just overcoming it.
My youngest son is the social one of the three. He revels in social interaction and doing things with his siblings or with other children. He loves making people laugh and smile.
You can just tell when they do something that really strikes a chord deep inside of them. They lose themselves in the moment. They smile in a deep and genuine way in which their whole face just lights up. There’s something alive about them.
When I’m busy and distracted, I don’t see these moments. Instead, I only see funhouse mirror reflections of those moments.
For example, when my son shows me some puzzle that he’s solved today, it would be incredibly easy to misinterpret that situation and think that his joy comes from the puzzle itself, not from the solving of it.
I might be tempted to hear my daughter singing a song and think that she loves the song, not the singing.
I might see my youngest son playing with several toys alongside a few friends and interpret that he loves those toys, not that he loves his friends.
It would then become easy to feel like I was being a good parent and bringing them happiness by buying them things. I could give my oldest son a new puzzle. I could give my daughter some music to listen to. I could give my son another action figure.
If I did that, though, I’d be missing the point. I would simply be throwing money at something to cover up for my lack of attention.
A much better solution is to spend some time with them and help them find new ways to tap into what they love with the things they already have. I can help my daughter by teaching her a few piano chords and see if she can figure out some semblance of the song she has in her head. I can help my son by finding him new challenges around the house to stretch his body and mind. I can help my youngest one by making sure he has plenty of time to play with his friends.
Those kinds of things tap into what makes our children whole on a much deeper level than just buying them something. It also saves us money because we’re not parenting through buying things.
Paying attention – full, undivided attention – to your children is absolutely vital. It helps you figure out what it is that they actually value, and that value rarely has anything to do with buying more things. Instead of making up for lost time by buying them something, look for ways instead to find the time to figure out what it is that actually makes their eyes sparkle and their souls sing and then channel whatever that is. Most of the time, you can channel it without buying a single thing – and you’ll all be happier and better off.