When Robert Lovett, the future State Department official and Secretary of Defense, was a kid, it happened that both father and son took similar routes in the morning and evening—although at different times—to work and to school. Lovett and his father would often play an interesting game based on this coincidence.
At night after dinner, according to biographer Walter Issacson, the father would ask the son questions about what he had seen. “‘How many horses were pulling the car?’ he would ask about a midtown construction project. ‘How many girders were in the cart?’ ‘How were the horses hitched to the cart?’” There would be a few quarters as a reward if young Robert was right, but he could be deducted a quarter from his winnings if he got anything wrong.
This was more than just a silly activity to do together, although such things are wonderful. What his father was teaching him was the art of paying attention. Robert was learning to notice, to focus on the details and not to take his surroundings for granted. He could have just as easily ridden to school fantasizing about this or that, or oblivious to the city around him. Instead, because of his father’s care and creativity, he was actually present. Those rides became an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to develop a skill that far too few of us have: the ability to truly see what is happening around us.
Of course, you don’t have to play the same game with your kids (and few of us today would let our kids ride their bike to school alone in New York City), but you can find your own way to reward and inspire them to pay attention. However many quarters or pats on the back they win from you in doing so will be irrelevant compared to the real gift you’ll have given them.