In our family room, our digital frame cycles through baby photos of my 11-year-old son all day, every day, and each time I catch a glimpse, I think, That feels like it was yesterday.
With summer and middle school looming, I’ve been reflecting on ways to embrace the space for independence that my son needs, while still enabling his dad and me to connect with him and stay present in his life without being overbearing.
Here are a few that are working so far:
1. Make time to plan for life’s moments—big and small.
For the longest time, I’d scroll through photos on social media of other people’s family vacations and group activities, and my first feeling would be jealousy. Why can’t I do that?
And then I realized: The only difference between them and me is that they made the time to plan it! From that day on, I became more intentional about planning our family time.
When relatives visit, I research things to do to get us out of the house. If we have a sports-free weekend, I’ll suggest checking out a restaurant with a great patio. And on random evenings when my son is staring at YouTube on his phone and I can skip whatever chore I’m doing, I’ll ask him if he wants to play cards or Jenga or make edible cookie dough—he always says yes!
Don’t get me wrong, burden and anxiety can come with being the family vacation planner or family time initiator and opens you up to eye rolls and grunts of rejection. Start small. Get bubble tea together. Make popsicles. Go for a walk. Play catch. Bump a volleyball. Then work your way toward art classes, axe throwing, miniature golf, or two personal favorites: roller skating and bowling (but not at the same time!).
Focus on things both you and your child enjoy. Here are some easy ideas to get you started for summer break.
2. Spend a lot of time on the road? Make the most of those car rides to be present with your kid.
My son’s soccer practice is three nights a week and 25 miles away, which means we get at least three hours together in the car each week. Just the two of us.
Sometimes we blare the music and sing every song at the top of our lungs. Sometimes he falls asleep, which I wish I could do! And sometimes the stars align and he talks to me. It’s during these car rides that I’m learning how to have conversations with my son.
Questions like “How was your day?” or “How was practice?” don’t yield much, but a “Would you rather have the eyesight of an eagle or the speed of a cheetah, and why?” will always get an enthusiastic response. And it usually leads to him opening up about other things without prompting on my part.
Communication is hard. I do it for a living and know that it can suck the energy out of people. But being mindful of the quieter moments with our kids and being creative with how we engage with them helps build trust and a long-lasting relationships.
3. Think and listen like a mentor.
Recently, I’ve become a mentor to mid-career professionals. This requires a lot of listening to help my mentees articulate their goals and discover their purpose. Our children need this same type of listening to help them process everything that happens to them in life.
One night after soccer practice, my son was expressing frustration, and I cut him off because I disagreed with him. The immediate look of defeat on his face was heartbreaking. He was confiding in me, and I didn’t give him a chance to speak nor myself the opportunity to listen. That night, I wrote in my journal: Mistake to learn from: I need to listen first.
Just like my mentees, my kid has tools to navigate the stage of life he is in, but he needs me to be present for him like a mentor—someone who listens and asks questions that help him discover his own answers.
4. Be present by asking these 3 questions:
I recently changed the format of my check-ins with my team at work, taking advice from life coach podcaster Jay Shetty and started asking three questions: 1) What have been highlights of the last couple of weeks? 2) What have been challenges? 3) How can I help you? This re-framing of conversations opened a whole new world of how my team and I engage with each other.
We have the same opportunity with our kids. During those car rides or mealtimes, ask these three questions. While the rule of thumb is to focus on your child, do share your own highlights and challenges to let them know they’re not alone.
5. Volunteer at school. Seriously, join the PTA. Today.
I had the pleasure of receiving the Texas PTA Honorary Life Membership Award this year, which was a complete shock. Since it’s my son’s last year in elementary, I had been practicing restraint during those calls for volunteers.
And then BOOM. I received the best of wake-up calls that: 1) showed me that my time volunteering the previous five years had a lasting effect, and 2) reminded me that every little bit counts, especially at our children’s schools where staffing and funding shortages are all too common challenges.
One of the best ways to be present for your kids is to be involved in their schools. PTA can be daunting (in all frankness, it is run by women who, if they started a corporation, would no doubt build the best company in the world!), but beyond the meetings and agendas, there are endless ways to support your child’s school that can fit any schedule.
We are raising future citizens, and when our kids see us advocate for them and lend a helping hand to build community, they take those lessons and keep building for us.
Five minutes can go a long way in being present with your kids.
Our kids crave our time and positive attention, which we can give anytime and anywhere. Always remember that extravagance isn’t necessary to be present with our kids—a little bit of thoughtfulness and planning can go a long way in creating memorable moments and strong relationships.
The tiniest seeds—five minutes to ask a creative question; 15 minutes to plan an afternoon; 30 minutes to volunteer at school—have the potential to grow the most flourishing fruit.