I don’t know about you, but most of the time when my kids are talking to me, I am not fully listening. “Aha” and “Oh that’s great!” roll off of my lips as I glance in their general direction while I am cutting a cucumber, finding a lost shoe or wondering why there is still not a match for that pink sock. Sometimes my kids notice this lack of attention and scold me by saying, “eyes on mine,” to be sure that my limited attention will find its way to them. But with three kids, managing our home and my work, there’s a lot to keep me distracted.
Our recent move to Israel has helped me slow down and focus more because what they need me to focus on is becoming more pressing than “look at this cool Lego thing I built.” In their way, they are processing what it means to have left the place where they felt at ease, to join a new culture as an immigrant. “I just don’t know what’s going on,” my son laments, because his first grade teacher in Jerusalem doesn’t speak to him in English. And my 3-year-old pines, “when am I going to have a playdate with my friends from my old school?” The ninth of never, I don’t reply. “Everyone here has black eyes,” my daughter continues, talking about the mizrachi (Jews who are eastern or oriental in origin) children in her gan (nursery school), who are very different from the blue or green-eyed classmates in Sag Harbor.
There’s nothing like a major life transition to help you remember skills from parenting 101. When your kids are acting out and need your attention, crouch down to their level, look them in the eye and focus on what they are trying to tell you. As I take in their anxiety, pain, frustration, and uncertainty, I want to give them the room to take baby steps to overcome what is so challenging for them. (As for me—I’m able to manage my own frustrations around going to 100 different government ministries to register us for this and that over a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on a bad day, and a hard swim in the local pool on a good one.)
Now, I’m thinking about what it means to listen. The arresting sounds of the shofar that roused us to wake up from our semi-conscious state during the chagim recede and are replaced by a softer, more pervasive listening of the Shema. In addition to saying the prayer twice a day, there’s a tradition to recite the Shema at bedtime too. The Jewish people are called to listen and understand that there is unity in the world and that God is one. And as a parent, when I am committed to saying the Shema at night with my kids, I’m really telling them that right before they are transitioning to nighttime, a frightening part of the day, I am here, and I am listening to them.
So while the distractions are real, and while I am often pulled to maximize my time when I am with them (prepping dinner, laundry and meaningful interactions with them), I am thinking now about how to gently shift my behavior. To slow down, to hear their words and more than that, to listen to the robust emotional life that their simple words are trying to express.