A few weeks ago I was at a party at a friend’s house. It’s an annual affair-I know the friend from a discussion group and from my old neighborhood, and every year he throws a big breakfast party for the group and for his friends. There were about 40 people there, and I noticed this woman in her 30’s who was there with her daughter, who could not have been more than 3 years old. The woman was involved in talking with a lot of us older adults, and she watched part of a video with us as well. She also danced to some classic R’n’B. During these times she gave the kid a cell phone to look at some cartoons. I spent a lot of time talking with a number of friends I hadn’t seen in a while, helping with the cooking, and watching some of the movie-it was Stormy Weather, a great 1940’s Lena Horne movie. But for some reason my attention kept getting drawn back to the woman and her daughter. As I watched them I noticed the woman sat with the kid for a bit, and they watched some cartoons on the cell phone together. She also ate with the kid and explained what some of the foods were the kid was either unfamiliar with or unsure about. At one point when she was watching the Lena Horne movie, the woman put the kid on her lap and whispered some things about the movie to her. When the girl was clearly bored with the movie, the woman got up and went through the house with the kid, holding her hand and pointing out some of the things on the walls and tables to the kid. The woman was involved with the adults at the gathering, but she never lost track of her daughter. The images of them together struck me for some reason, and those images stayed with me.
A week or so later it become clear to me why the interactions of that woman and her daughter were so striking to me. I was taking a train from Chestnut Hill into Center City, and I was sitting in the car alternately reading, looking out the window and watching my trainmates. Across the aisle from me were two parents with young kids under the age of 4, and what I saw on that train ride solidified for me what I saw at my friend’s party. Directly across from me was a father and his son, and the son was kneeling on the seat, looking backwards and forwards out the window as the train rolled on. He was pointing at things outside the window and excitedly saying things, like, “Look at that, Dad!” and “What’s that?” And his father was looking at the same things and answering him and engaging with him and pointing things out to him and asking him questions. At one point the father’s cell phone rang. He answered it, talked for a couple of minutes, then clicked off and went back to interacting with his son. This happened for pretty much the whole ride into town. A couple of seats in front of this pair was a woman and her son. The son was looking around at things, like the first kid, and asking questions. The mom was on her cell phone, and she looked over at the kid, gave a couple of short answers, and then went back to her phone conversation. The kid asked a few more questions whereupon the woman reached into a bag that she had and pulled out an IPad. She gave it to the kid, the kid sat down, turned it on, and for most of the rest of the trip had his head down looking at the screen while his mom continued her phone conversation. And the meaning of the mom and her daughter at the party and that father and his son on the train came into focus for me. Those parents were able to do the adult things they wanted to do or had to do and still find times and ways to interact with their kids. The mother on the train, for whatever reason, was not. And I truly mean “interact with"; asking and answering questions, being with the kids where the kid was, responding to the kids’ concerns and interests, and for awhile at least, putting the kids’ interest on a level with the adult’s. And I realized that I just do not see that that often.
When I think of all the distractions, interruptions, and demands for our attention with which the modern world bombards us, I find it amazing that there are parents who can sidestep all of that and give good attention and focus to their children. That woman at the party and that man on the train reminded me of how precious and rare that is. Too often I see parents walking down the street, holding their kids’ hands, but jabbering away on a cell phone. Or sitting with them in a coffee shop or restaurant with the kid looking around and the parent’s eyes glued to a screen. Or worse yet, the parent and the kid both watching separate screens or engaged in separate cell phone conversations. It seems to me that such scenes are more and more common. Not that I am a Luddite and opposed to electronic communication and digital devices-after all, I have a cell phone and I am sending this by e-mail. But I also believe that in our helter-skelter, super-fast modern world, times spent together between parents and kids are fewer and shorter. And there should be every opportunity for maximum interaction between them. Those parents that can do that, who can prioritize their time with their kids, have a lot to teach and show us. Yes, we need to be a part of the modern world and involved in it. But we also need to step back and find time to attend to the other things that can bring us well-being and happiness in a way the electronics, digital systems, and algorithms can’t. We need, if only for the occasional moment, to be humans embracing and sharing our humanity with other humans. In human ways. And I can’t think of more important ways of doing that than doing it with our children. Here's hoping more of us can remember to do that more often.