Finding Balance?

Respecting the child by giving time and undivided attention?

Here are some notes I had with my husband recently regarding a conversation we had about finding balance and ways to articulate children’s long-term needs. I decided to share this on our Learning World blog as the grandmother that I am, more than as the Center Director for Learning World.  We are all in the process of learning–life has so many new opportunities for us to learn from.  The last six months, I’ve been living in the lower level of my youngest daughter’s home, where I set up a school for the Little Folks in Washington, D.C. My thoughts on this blog entry are a result of a conversation I had with my husband who has remained in St. Louis to complete his work on his Ed.D. in Character Education at the University of Missouri.

Our first question together was:

If a parent, when with a child— perhaps nursing or feeding or doing an activity— is multitasking with a computer or smartphone, the child is likely to be aware of the lack of full attention on the part of the adult. One of my questions  is whether this matters? Does the model for children of not being fully present by looking into their eyes for periods of time, or not being fully engaged in an activity with the child, have a negative effect in the long term?

Is one of the triggers when children “act out” for attention, or whine in disagreement with their parents, a result of not having a basic need for undivided attention satisfied?

Of course, this can be viewed from both perspectives: the child’s point of view—and the parent’s point of view. Parents need to feel their own needs are being met also.  There is nothing more demanding than the care of young children and although we have many books on this subject, they really don’t prepare parents for this imbalance!

What are ways to accommodate the needs of both the adult and the child? If the child needs a certain amount of undivided attention and the adult has needs of keeping income flowing, continuing to do work, etc., I wonder if the goal might be to find a balance so that the child has sufficient undivided attention that the child develops the security and the awareness of their connection with the adult and the adult has the time to complete the work that is needed.

I suppose this question has much to do with how do we show respect for one another.

Balance: giving the child sufficient undivided attention  so that the child develops a sense of confidence in self and awareness of their value as a member of the community and providing time so parents may serve the community by doing the work that they are obligated to do.

The challenge is to put the two areas of responsibility into balance and to eliminate as much as possible all the things that are superfluous. For example if the dad has the responsibility of being on a conference call and the child wants to be with the dad during the time of a conference call there is a dilemma. Prevention of  this dilemma  might be to better prepare for the conference call with the young child more involved.

There is no formula for reaching a balance that meets the needs of the child and the needs of the parent. But there might be some standards and procedures the parents can follow to find this balance.

Talk Together:

One possibility is to talk with a child about the schedule and to let the child know what the needs of the parent are. Of course the child may be too young to describe their needs, but it is the responsibility of the adult to anticipate as much as possible when the child will need full attention and to structure ways to meet that need for full attention.

By talking together, I assume parents will keep their points brief!  Try to explain basic needs in as simple a language as possible.

When a parent explains in child-friendly language some of the details of the upcoming call, then, even very young children feel respected and are willing to give a little time to their parent. On the other hand, the child may use that to exploit the parent by cajoling and throwing a tantrum at the time for the conference call. This is not something that happens without cultivation. The child needs genuine experiences where their needs are respected.


Nurturing Takes Time: Its Organic, Not Mechanical

Think of the children as growing plants, not as machines. Learning is recursive, that until the child grasps and internalizes concepts, its not meaningful.

When we are nurturing parents we are patient parents–patient with ourselves as well as with our little ones.


Is it possible to adjust the pace set each day to more adequately meet each one’s needs? Isn’t it hard to be rushed out the door, to be on time for school, for instance, when you really have no concept of time! How can parents more fully prepare the children to meet deadlines? Are their some key phrases that could help with this?

Perhaps by saying something like “This is a hurry up time”  or  by singing a favorite song and suggesting that shoes and coat need to be on before we reach the end of Twinkle!



Providing a manageable, age appropriate environment. You don’t ask children to deal with problems they don’t comprehend. With the youngest, you provide choices that are simplified, suitable for the child’s developmental level.


Although I am considering this a “standard” I am well aware how difficult it is to be consistent in our day to day dealings with our young folk.  Just when you think you have confidence in your system and schedule, something changes. Change is the constant.

As I consider these ideas, I hope to elaborate more.

When I was away for several months to care for our grandchildren, my husband commented that we weren’t sharing information as regularly and consistently as he had hoped. He suggested that we find a time each day where we could talk. The challenge for me was the times that I was free (nap time, for instance, was when he was often in meetings. and because of the time difference I was usually so tired by 10 p.m. which would be 9 p.m. his time!) He thought we could consider one process —to have the conversations that we need during the day time and to ask the grandchildren’s permission to have a conversation. If we have a conference call and talk about things that are important to us and the child has anything that comes up in the middle of a conversation we can defer to the child’s needs and resume our conversation afterwards, he suggested. He went on to infer that the children benefit by hearing us discuss our ideas together–that this would demonstrate more inclusiveness.

In thinking about his request,

I realized that by asking children’s permission to make phone calls is one small step in being respectful. I also thought about times when I’ve asked the children to tell my husband something they’ve learned or wanted to recite. I’ve been thinking that although it may be kind to talk over possible ideas the child could share on a phone call, I do hope that as much as possible, children are not requested to “perform”. Of course, we grandparents, love hearing their poems, their songs, their recitations, but not after they have been cajoled into sharing these things—capturing the tone and intent of their sharing, is what we really delight in. 

A favorite “Family Circus” cartoon from many years ago shows the mom yanking on her son’s trousers holding him back from running off as she politely speaks into the telephone to her Aunt Nancy assuring her he wants to speak with her! Seeing this cartoon always makes me chuckle, but in reality, the actions bring me discomfort—its hard to be “forced” to have to be “polite” or to do as you are told in those circumstances!

If the grandchildren have the opportunity to chime in on their own free will and say the things that occur to them, we are supporting their ongoing creativity and discovery of independent thinking.

When is it appropriate to have “private conversations” and to care for children at the same time?

Another observation I’ve made is when at the local parks, it is more common to see adults preoccupied with their cell phones than in watching over the children on the play structures.  Of course, this is a natural setting that might be conducive to getting some things checked off the “to do” list while the children play. However, adults miss socialization opportunities for their young ones by guiding and modeling appropriate ways to share equipment, etc.  Playground time is the key time to teach community awareness so why do we ignore this and zone out? It is only after the child has been pushed down the slide or off the climber and has crashed to the ground with wails of cries that the adults abruptly end their conversations, and tend to the little ones. Meanwhile the child never really learns how to take turns, or how to ask if they might play with the ball next.  They learn by being pushed aside and perhaps even, bullied, and the adults around them don’t seem to notice.

If the parent is aware that there can be a balance between using the cellphone and giving the child undivided attention the parent might be willing to sacrifice some of the conversation on the phone for the sake of giving the child needed attention. If the parent can have a sense of joy and excitement in seeing the child develop and grow and thrive in that loving support then the parent may value the time with the child more than the time on the phone.

These ideas for young children can also apply to adolescents because children and all people need to understand their place and value. By communicating what we’re thinking and what we’re doing, both adults and children can build bridges of understanding between their worlds and have the kind of stable relationship that involves both a sense of connection and a sense of freedom.

If the parent and the child both communicate their ideas and needs and plans clearly then the relationship has resilience and stability that enables both parent and child to cope with the changes that inevitably occur in daily life. People have resilience when they understand their needs are important and the pressure of the world is an issue for everyone.

It is possible for parents to find balance between undivided attention for children and living their lives and fulfilling their responsibilities beyond the child. This question of balance is a significant challenge. As with any balancing act you can fall off one side or the other. But there are strategies such as those shown in First Steps in a Grown Up World by Mary Edge Harlan, that give the parent ways to see life from the point of view of the child. (This timeless book written by a Nursery School Director was first published in 1952 and remains a favorite on my bookshelf!)

Children and parents have different needs and to assume that if something is beneficial for the parent, it follows that it will also be beneficial for the child, can be fallacious. We need to have ways parents can communicate and lead the family forward to the mutual benefit of parent and child.

One step that an outsider (someone who is not the main caregiver–a teacher, friend,) can take is to give a perspective that enables the parent to understand more fully how life is perceived by the child.  If an outsider can help the child find voice and help the parent  through the eyes of a child, then the outsider can be a resource who will give the family a greater chance at having a stable and productive relationship.

 Perhaps the key to the work is developing language that expresses the thought of the child in a way that the adults can see the world through children’s eyes

Finding balance between work, leisure, and family is a challenge. What steps can I take to document the way to give voice to the needs of preschoolers and other children, I wonder? 

It will take effort and time to develop the language in a form that parents can fully implement but it’s good work and worthy of the effort. This is the essence of love– seeing from other people’s perspectives– being aware of their needs, appreciating the value of each individual, being joyful in the relationship, and being thoroughly accurate and honest and candid about what’s working and what’s not working in the relationship.