The line was almost out the door of the coffee shop, and when I got to the front, I found out they were out of pumpkin flavored coffee, even though fall hadn’t even officially begun. Needless to say, it was an annoying start to my morning.
The guy in front of me also looked peeved. He stared moodily into his iPhone as his two adorable little daughters tried desperately to get his attention, running circles around him and tugging on his legs. “Daddy, watch me! Look at this!” they called. He only looked up when they knocked over a rack from the display case, and then he halfheartedly admonished them before returning immediately to his phone. He probably missed their weary, crestfallen faces, but I didn’t.
And I tried not to judge, because we’ve all been the people who shot dirty looks at people with their screaming toddlers in the grocery store, wondering why they couldn’t get a handle on these pint-sized humans–and then we became parents, and understood. And I’m also cranky before coffee. But I watched for 10 minutes on line, in testimony to the desperate lengths I’ll go to for that caffeinated jolt before work, and he stayed on his phone the whole time, only looking up once or twice more to snap at his daughters when they strayed too far or got too loud. When he finally reached down to pick one of the girls up, who was literally climbing up his torso to be held, he looked not depleted, but simply bored.
Exhausted, frazzled, or overwhelmed: these are emotions I get, but I will never understand how people can be indifferent to their children, or how they can go through the motions of parenting and complete the essential tasks that feed, water, and shelter their children but then fall short of fulfilling their emotional needs. It seems obvious that as important as it is to concern yourself with the physical needs of your children, it is equally important to validate their feelings and account for their desire to be seen, heard and loved; to look up, with interest and not annoyance, when they call your name.
While I don’t know if that scene in the coffee shop was an isolated incident, and I’ve seen snapshots of this kind of disregard for one’s own children before in so many other places of commerce or in shul, I’ve also seen this kind of unfortunate parenting practiced in general by people, including certain friends of mine.
And when I say unfortunate or lamentable parenting, I don’t mean attachment parenting or babywise parenting or insert-buzzword-of-the-moment-here parenting, or a philosophy of parenting that I might disagree with but that I know comes from another parent’s love and belief in what’s best for their children.
I don’t mean an occasional outburst at your child in public, or breaking down in tears, spent, when you realize that you’ve already cooked, cleaned, done two loads of laundry, played six board games, and watched three episodes of Mike the Knight with your kids and it’s only 8:30 a.m., and you wonder how on earth you got to this place. You are college-educated, dammit, and you want to discuss the situation in Syria and not why dogs go outside to poop but cats go inside.
I don’t mean that.
I mean the parents I observe running around taking their children to all the right places, like the amusement park during a school break or apple-picking on the weekends, but who then spend almost the entire time on their smartphone or tablet or talking to their own contemporaries. I mean the parents who I see over-scheduling their kids for extracurricular activities and are then too tired from the chauffeuring and carpooling to pay attention to their children recounting their experiences; the parents who throw the extravagant birthday parties where careful attention is paid to every thematic detail but not to the birthday child herself; and the parents who drop their kids off in the playroom, set themselves down around the Shabbat table, and pay no mind to their offspring until someone is crying or a wall covered in crayon is discovered.
Few children end up in therapy because their parents didn’t take them to Hershey Park during spring break or because their 3rd birthday party was missing a backyard bounce house. More end up there because their parents invested too little time in meeting their emotional needs and missed the boat.
I struggle with it sometimes, because mustering the energy to fulfill a child’s need for your undivided attention after a long day of work and dealing with your own crap is indeed a monumental task. I’ve learned that some of it can be manufactured and must be, for there’s only so many times you can take genuine pride in yet another cobbled-together craft from school, or express sheer delight after watching 30 basketballs thrown wildly at a backboard before one finally makes that sweet swish sound through the hoop.
But if my exclamation of joy at their latest trick is forged, and my interest in some pre-school saga is feigned, at least it is there.
And I frequently remind myself when I’m low on emotional generosity that the length of time your children actually clamor for your undivided attention is brief. Soon enough, spending time with Mom or Dad becomes less of an enchantment and more of a chore, and I suppose it’s the natural order of things. So when my children want my attention now, it doesn’t take them 10 minutes of begging or competition with Apple to get it. No matter what is going on at work or in other parts of my personal life, I put down my phone, or I leave the grown-up conversation at the Shabbat table, and I treasure my children’s zeal for me. I know that soon enough, it will probably be me tugging at their coattails begging for their attention.
While meeting my children’s emotional needs is sometimes exhausting, it never becomes something tiresome. It’s difficult for me to understand how others let it become something tedious or drudgery to “get through” so they can go back to other pursuits.
And I will never understand how an iPhone can win over a child in a coffee shop trying desperately to get her father to look away from his phone and say to her, “I see you–and you are wonderful.”