It’s hard being a dad. You have work. You have responsibilities. You may have a spouse, and all sorts of other people to take care of. You have to make sure to keep these kids alive. Managing that is more than a full-time job. So it’s really easy to be distracted, to not be fully present for these experiences that are happening right around you.
If you’d like to be more present with your kids, there are a handful of key things you can do–practices and exercises that will bring your attention fully to what’s in front of you. There is also a lot you can learn from your children in this department because in the words of Jean de la Bruyere, the French philosopher, “Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present, which seldom happens to us.”
To that end, here are seven ways to be more present with your kids.
1) Put away your phone when you’re with your kids
Yeah, you’re giving your son a bath…but you have your phone out. Yeah, you took your daughter to the park, but you’re checking fantasy football scores while you push her on the swing. Yeah, you got the whole family together for dinner, but are any of you really present? Or are you lost to social media?
It’s not enough to just be around your kids. You have to actually be there. That means putting away your phone. That means putting away their phone, if they have one. They deserve phone-free time from you. You deserve phone-free time with them.
According to research from the app RescueTime, an app on iOS and android created to monitor phone use, people generally spend an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day. Not just that, but we pick up our phones an average of 58 times per day. How much of this is actually necessary? How many times are we checking our phones for things that are actually urgent and pressing instead of just out of mere habit? Most of us would be embarrassed to say.
Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that no matter what we do, our children will follow. Parenting techniques have evolved from spending high-quality time with our kids; talking with them and playing with them, into distracting them with a screen as soon as they show the first sign of distress. As we struggle with the high demands of today’s fast paced life, we as parents often find ourselves too overwhelmed to be completely capable of catering to our children’s needs.
Because of this, we often resort to the convenience of a phone or tablet to occupy their ceaseless imaginations. Though sometimes useful, our choice to introduce our young ones to technology so early on could be hurting them far more than it helps us. Anna Lembke, a Stanford university Psychiatrist specializing in addiction, found that children’s brains are more susceptible to the development of substance abuse and addiction when they are exposed to addictive behavior in their developing stages. Everytime we put a phone screen in front of our child we push them a step further into developing a dependency on an external source for “happiness” and “contentment”.
So try to limit your dependence on your smartphone as much as possible. Get a landline at home so you’re not carrying your cell phone around the house. Stop using your phone as an alarm clock. Charge it in some inconvenient place so it’s out of sight, out of mind. Commit, in the mornings for instance, not to check your phone for your first thirty minutes after waking up. Or put it away from dinner until the kids’ bedtime. Whatever. Make up some rules that give you phone-free time—that give your kids phone-free Dad time.
And make sure that when you’re with them, you are grateful for the moment you’re getting with them (however banal or boring), rather than itching to get back to checking twitter or watching netflix.
2) Make time for some fun with your kids every day
By having a child you have signed an unwritten contract to shake up your life in a way that it likely hasn’t been before. The question is, are you going to fight the crazy or embrace it? Douglas MacArthur was a man of routine, most military men are. So it shouldn’t surprise us that he built a family life around routine. But unlike far too many fathers who make routine a form of control, MacArthur’s morning routine was about fun—about starting the day off right.
As the peerless William Manchester details in his book American Caesar, the morning time was one of the best times at the MacArthur household. In fact, it was kind of scheduled crazy fun:
When Arthur began to walk, and then to talk, father and son developed a morning ceremony. At about 7:30 A.M. the door of the General’s bedroom would open and the boy would trudge in clutching his favorite toy, a stuffed rabbit with a scraggly mustache which he called “Old Friend.” MacArthur would instantly bound out of bed and snap to attention. Then the General marched around the room in quickstep while his son counted cadence: “Boom! Boom! Boomity boom!” After they had passed the bed several times, the child would cover his eyes with his hands while MacArthur produced the day’s present: a piece of candy, perhaps, or a crayon, or a coloring book. The ritual would end in the bathroom, where MacArthur would shave while Arthur watched and both sang duets.
And it didn’t just happen when Arthur was young. As he got older, while his father ruled post-war Japan, Arthur would wake at 7am, and according to Manchester, “rush into the General’s bedroom and pummel him.”
And MacArthur wasn’t the only one who scheduled these rough-housing sessions with his kids into his day. Ulysses S. Grant used to have wrestling matches with his kids every evening, and the baseball player Harmon Killebrew’s spoke fondly of the yard games his father knew was killing his grass but helping raise his kids. Well, we shouldn’t just be talking about this, we shouldn’t just be thinking it was cute that MacArthur and Grant let their guard down at home. We have to do the same thing.
No one is too important or too busy to have some crazy time at home. No one is above getting pummeled by their kid in bed. No father should hesitate before singing at the top of their lungs while they shave. These moments are the best moments. If they’re rare, you’re doing it wrong. They should be regular. Maybe like MacArthur, they should be scheduled every morning for 7:30.
Because there is no better way to be present for your kids than to make time for things that are fun for the both of you every single day. Whether it’s an evening wrestling match or having a tea party, both of you will be better off. And by regularly having fun together with them, it’ll be that much easier to turn the moments that aren’t necessarily fun, like waiting at the doctor’s office or doing homework together, into a game as well.
3) Stop watching the news around your child
What dad hasn’t tuned out the story his son was telling him because he had to reply to a particularly stupid email from a colleague? What husband hasn’t been in a bad mood all evening because of a headline he saw on the CNN ticket?
A psychological study conducted in 1997 found that people who consumed just 14-minutes of negative news (on wars, famines, murders, etc.) were much more anxious and sad than those who were exposed to positive or neutral news. Not just that, but the people who were exposed to the negative news spent more time talking about their own personal worries and anxieties immediately after. The study also found that the people in this group were also much more likely to catastrophize these worries and perceive them to be much worse than they were in reality.
And this was conducted in 1997. Before we had phones in our pockets with all the news headlines in the world within arms reach at all times. Before the 24-hour news cycle became an infinite news cycle full of people that want nothing more than to gain our attention so they can manipulate it to their purposes. But how often do we stop to think. How much of this is necessary? Do we really need to keep up with every single little thing going on in the world? We forget that giving in to the need to feel “informed” often comes at the expense of the little one in front of us.
Too many dads are concerned about managing their kid’s screen time and not enough about managing their own. At least your six year old is just playing silly games or watching Blippi videos. You’re the one mainlining partisan rage off a news website. You’re the one stoking the fire of envy by scrolling through Instagram. You’re the one blowing off work by commenting on Reddit.
Don’t let the internet steal your attention. Because they’re not really stealing it from you. They’re stealing it from your kids. In fact, you’re stealing time from your kids by letting them steal it from you.
Which is why it’s worth mentioning again. Be aware. Be vigilant. Put down the phone.
4) Keep in mind your child may not always be with you
As a parent you’ll love your child so much that just the thought of anything happening to them will physically hurt. Therefore, it’s fitting that one of the most important things you can do as a parent would require you to think about a thing that’s very nearly impossible for a parent to even consider. It comes to us from Marcus Aurelius by way of Epictetus:
As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?
Of course, this is not an easy thing to do. It goes against all our impulses. But we must do it. Because life is fleeting and the world is cruel. Marcus lost 5 children. 5! It should never happen, but it does. And it’s not that we hope that Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical training prepared him for the pain of losing a child (nothing can prepare you for that). What we hope is that this exercise meant he didn’t waste a single second of the time he did get with his beautiful children.
A parent who faces the fact that they can lose a child at any moment is a parent who is present. Who loves. Who does not hold onto stupid things or enforce stupid rules. A great dad looks at the cruel world and says, “I know what you can do to my family in the future, but for the moment you’ve spared me. I will not take that for granted.” Anxiety? Keeping up with the Joneses? Caring about getting into that exclusive pre-school or into Harvard? Who cares?
It can all go away in a second. There’s nothing we can do about that. We can, however, drink in the present. We can be what they need right now.
5) Say ‘no’, so you can say ‘yes’ to your kids
In early January, Kobe Bryant got a note from a reporter at ESPN. She was working on a story about a moment in Lakers’ history and she wanted to feature Kobe in the story. It’s one of those requests that public figures get all the time. It’s part of their job–in fact, it’s kind of one of the things that attracted them to the job in the first place. To be in the news, to have people want to hear their opinion, to grow their brand.
How long would it have taken to answer the inquiry? Fifteen minutes? An hour? A few emails back and forth? Who knows. What we do know is how Kobe responded to it, and it’s a response made heartbreakingly sad but also deeply moving considering his tragic death just a few weeks later.
“Can’t right now,” Kobe messaged the reporter. “My girls are keeping me busy. Hit me up in a couple of weeks.”
How often do you have the discipline to send something like that? How strong are you at putting your family first? How good are your defenses against the endless requests, opportunities, impositions and obligations that come with your work and with life? It’s so easy to let people steal your time, to let them take you away from the things that are ultimately most important: Your kids. Your family. Your private space.
Kobe Bryant, tragically, will not get any more time with his kids and they will not get anymore time with him. Which is what makes that text he sent such a powerful reminder to us, a final feat of performance left there to inspire those of us continuing in the shadow of his death. Put your family first. Put your kids first. Say that you’re too busy. Say no.
Politely decline. If it’s not necessary, be ruthless. Your kids need you more. You have other priorities.
6) Look at every moment with your child as a gift
This moment right in front of you is a gift. It might not feel like it. Not with a colicky baby or a resentful teenager that refuses to give you a rest. Not with bills to pay or traffic to wait through. But indeed, these are wonderful moments.
Certainly better than not having this moment at all right?
“Always hold fast to the present,” Goethe said. “Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”
Being a dad is not some generalized experience. It’s not the high school graduation or walking them down the aisle in the distant future. It’s not what’s already happened either—being there for the birth, reading stories to them. It’s right now. It’s whatever you’re doing in this moment.
Driving them to school. Folding laundry. Getting some quiet time before they wake up. Sending them to their room. Taking away their phone because their grades have slipped. This is all of it, this is all part of the job. And every one of these moments is wonderful. All of it is a gift.
All of it is right now, being presented to you. Accept it. Embrace it. Hold onto it. Learn to appreciate every moment for what it is, not what you wish it was.
And the sooner you learn to be thankful for all these moments, both good and bad, the sooner you will be able to reap the benefits of this gratitude in all other areas of your life. Which, according to various research studies, range from increased happiness, increased career success, and of course, increased presence.
So any time you’re tested, just look at this as an opportunity to constantly set the example for your kids. Because by seeing you more grateful and present, they too will become more grateful and present.
7) Let go of all your baggage
Even if it wasn’t such a relief for overworked dads and moms, it’d hurt a little to think about how much our kids love their grandparents. It almost seems like they prefer grandma and grandpa sometimes, don’t they?
Why is that?
It’s pretty simple. Because grandparents have outgrown most of their baggage. They have let go. Even a lot of grandparents who were demanding and exacting parents seem to finally settle into themselves and manage to be exactly what the generation once removed needs. And kids can sense this: Grandma loves me for me. She’s so nice all the time. Grandpa just wants to hang out. He doesn’t try to make me do anything. He doesn’t boss me around or correct me, he just listens.
To paint a clearer picture of this we can look at the psychologist and author of the book The Drama of The Gifted Child Alice Miller’s observation that the children who are more likely to grow into happy and well-adjusted adults are those who felt loved and accepted for who they were by their parents. Because rather than having to hide behind a “false self” and constantly placate to their parents expectations, they are free to grow into the people they are actually meant to be.
Unfortunately, far too many parents lose sight of this. Because they were disciplined or raised a certain way, they think that that’s just how parenting is done. But it’s not. Your duty as a parent is to help your kid grow into the person they were meant to become and to help them get back up when they stumble. Not to pay forward the same things that caused you so much distress when you were a child.
So don’t make the mistake of waiting to be a grandparent to do the things that make kids love their grandparents. Be present, accepting, and proud of them for who they are now. Let go of all your baggage when you’re with them.