From toddler to teen, my children are teaching me what it means to be present.
Toddlers, especially, are good at teaching this lesson. For the past few nights, Walter has been overtired, and his bedtime routine has looked rather like a crash and burn event. We have been necessarily efficient, but that is usually not the case. Ordinarily bedtime looks more like a gradual unwinding of the day. We put all the lids away, and then I go with him to his bedroom. We close the door, and he plays for a bit while I watch. Only after this playtime do we get to putting on pajamas, nursing, reading books, singing lullabies, and saying our prayers. It’s a long process, as anyone with a toddler knows. During this process, it’s my job not to rush, but to be present for each step before Walter finally puts his head on his pillow, ready to sleep. It’s not very efficient.
It’s also not very efficient to linger on the river bank for a half an hour looking for what may or may not be “sea glass.” (It looked a little more like regular glass to me, but again, this was a lesson in presence, not correct terminology, so I let it be sea glass.) A brisk walk without pause would have been much more efficient, and I probably would have gotten more exercise. But what we would have missed! I love the river, and I love these two boys. There was no better way for us to spend that time than by being present together.
With teenagers, being present sometimes looks more like holding a space. A few weeks ago, Thomas had to make a rather large decision. At least five adults were waiting on his answer so that we could move on with our plans, and it was tempting to rush the process. It would have been more efficient just to make the decision for him, but instead, we gave him counsel, and then let him alone for a whole day. We let him putter around in his workshop, giving him space while he processed, and by the next morning he had made a mature decision suited to his needs.
Our family lifestyle lends itself to this kind of presence. We have time to put Walter to bed slowly, we have time to spend down by the river, and we have time to let our kids putter and process and decide for themselves. Homeschooling plays a large part in affording us this time. We have whole days to spend together. We don’t have to rush, and we don’t have to structure our time to meet an institutional agenda. I think it would be more efficient to put my school age children on a big yellow bus and have them sit in class with their same age peers, but efficiency is not one of my goals for their childhood or for their education.
There are plenty of parents who do send their children to school and are still present for them when class is dismissed. Some might even find that being present is easier this way. The theory of quality versus quantity comes into play here. Perhaps it is actually easier to be present for your children if you haven’t been dealing with their noise and their messes all day long. As someone who sometimes checks out or at least takes a break, I can understand how this might be the case. It is also possible to not be present even if you are homeschooling. Pushing through curricula, scheduling too many activities, and parental burnout all come to mind here.
Presence is ultimately a state of being. Homeschooling parents can be present, or not. Parents who send their kids to school can be present, or not. Presence is also a bit of a balancing act, because efficiency is not essentially bad. Indeed, there are times when efficiency is helpful and even necessary. If we want to get to a scheduled activity on time, we may have to be efficient in our preparations. If the toddler is whining because he is hungry, we may want to be efficient in getting food on the table. A degree of efficiency is a good thing, and how much of a degree depends largely on the situation and the people involved. There are some people who would be driven crazy by the degree of inefficiency in my household. In fact, I think I am sometimes driven crazy by the degree of inefficiency in my household! It’s all about finding the right balance.
I am learning to hold the balance between presence and efficiency. My particular balance leans more towards presence because this is what works for me and my family. I am taking my cues from my children. They are good teachers.