I recently went to pick up my preschooler from school and his teacher asked if I had a minute (never a good sign). He proceeded to tell me about an incident that had happened that day where kids had used their hands instead of their words and how the teachers had responded and how they were handling the situation. I actually felt pretty good about the whole thing, and promised that I would do my part at home to reiterate the teachings going on at school.
Fast forward to later that night when my son and I are lying in bed and we finally have a quiet moment. I attempt to bring up what happened at school that day (in a totally non-judgy, supportive way!) only to be met with… poop jokes. (Please tell me I’m not the only mom of a preschooler where most of the conversations revolve around bowel movements?) After a few more failed attempts, I recognize that my kid isn’t ready to talk about the incident and all I can do is try again later.
Except I know that there’s a good chance that I won’t try again later. You know, because mornings are always rushed and then after school we have swim class which means we’ll be late for dinner and we definitely can’t skip the bath after being in the pool, and by that point he’ll be totally exhausted so it’ll be straight to bed, and then the following day I’m going into the city for work and then I have dinner plans and then it’s the weekend and he’ll be too excited about his friend’s birthday party to have a calm conversation, not to mention that by that point his 4-year-old brain will have forgotten all about what happened three days ago. Well, thank goodness his teachers can help him with this stuff, I thought. And it’s true—we have wonderful teachers and I have full confidence in their abilities. But I couldn’t help but feel sad that so much of my day-to-day interaction with my child is about shepherding him from A to B, and making sure he’s fed and somewhat clean, rather than talking about complicated topics and teaching him big life stuff. (Unless you count all the fart jokes, that is.)
I complained about this to my friends at dinner the following night and it struck a chord—they, too, felt like they were so busy with the daily responsibilities of child rearing that they didn’t have enough time for heartfelt conversations and moral guidance. Between work, getting dinner on the table, making sure the kids have their winter gear, organizing activities and playdates and staying on top of all the school emails (so. Many. Emails), how the hell are parents supposed to have time for anything else? Should I be spending less time making muffins for the fall festival potluck and more time having conversations about equity and kindness, or even just playing with him?
In many ways, this conflict is nothing new—it’s simply that old friend mom guilt rearing its ugly head again.
Knowing that my other mom friends felt similar made me feel a little better. But I also wanted to reach out to an expert to get their take. Fortunately for all the busy moms out there, therapists say that it’s normal to spend most of your parenting life doing mundane tasks, and that not every moment has to be about deep connection.
“Connection is not at all about time,” explains Alana Carvalho, LMHC. “It’s about being present, curious and interested in our children,” she adds. Translation: You don’t have to spend every minute together with your kid to form a meaningful bond and when you are together, you don’t have to feel pressured to make the time special. Per Carvalho, it’s enough just to be present with your kid and interested in who they are, what they’re into and how they think. “As a parent, we can get stuck thinking our time together needs to be about teaching lessons and making sure they’re doing the right thing, but actually spending more time asking questions and consistently getting to know the child growing in front of us is most important.”
Rather than trying to orchestrate meaningful bonding time with your kid, try finding even just one time during the day where you can be present, Carvalho suggests (“usually the best moments for this I find are at times like bedtime, dinner time or driving together”). FWIW, there’s no exact number of minutes you need to hit in order for this time to be impactful (I asked!).
And when it comes to talking about the big stuff (like not hitting our friends when we’re frustrated), don’t overthink it. “Parents tend to overanalyze the discussions they want to have with their kids,” says Greg Lozano, a licensed professional counselor at Grow Therapy. “Just talk to them. Children understand a lot more than we give them credit for.” So, that’s what I did. The following week as I was putting my kid to bed, I asked him how things were going with his friends at school (“good,” apparently). I then asked him if any of his friends also liked Spider-Man, which got us talking about superheroes and fast shoes and bad guys and eventually—jackpot!—space invaders, which is apparently what had caused the hitting issue from last week (someone got into his space and there was poking involved, but the details are admittedly murky). I rejected the temptation to launch a moral tirade about why we shouldn’t hit people and instead kept the messaging simple. Did any of it go in? I have no idea. Did my son end up talking about his favorite topic (poop) anyway? You bet. But rather than beating myself up about it, I enjoyed the moment for what it was—my son giggling in bed with my undivided attention. And for right now, maybe that’s good enough.