Not long ago, here was a typical afternoon scenario with my needy toddler:
Me in the kitchen, cleaning up after a meal (…or four hours… ok, an entire day after a meal), washing dishes and the like. My son calls from the living room.
“Mama! Look what I made!”
I finish the dish I’m on, dry my hands on my pants as I go to look. “Oh wow, you’re playing legos. You’ve done a good job! What are you making?”
“Very nice.” I turn to go back to the kitchen, calling out one more, “Good job!” I wash a plate.
“Hey mom! Come look at my hotel now!”
I wash a couple more dishes.
“Mom! Mama! Come look! See what I did!”
I go to look. “Wow Des, you added a whole two more legos! That’s great!” Back in the kitchen.
“Mom! Come look! Look again, Mama!” Needy Toddler calls.
I ignore him, continue washing.
“Desmond! I need to finish these dishes! Play your toys and I will come when I’m done.”
This seemed to go on for some time, about a month preceding and following Desmond’s third birthday. Completing chores was exhausting and exasperating, took forever or didn’t even get done. I figured my son had entered this needy toddler stage because he was lonely and in need of a playmate. I ended up feeling guilty for not giving him a sibling yet, blaming myself for not planning better, not foreseeing this situation while he was still an infant, for having fertility struggles. I would just have to suck it up and fill in as his playmate as much as possible.
But then I learned about a small change I could be making to improve my connection with my son, helping my needy toddler feel less needy of my attention and praise at all times. With the help of insights from Janet Lansbury articles, I realized that I am not a fully present parent. And being one is not as daunting as it may sound.
My son often plays independently best in the morning, and I’ll take some downtime sitting on the couch looking at my phone or reading a chapter from a book while he keeps busy on the floor. It turns out that these are actually the best times to give him my attention–when he isn’t even asking for it. Once I just pulled myself away from my own activity, even when it felt unnecessary (and difficult… because personal downtime can be so very needed) considering the fact that he seemed perfectly content, and sat down next to him to watch whatever entertainment he had engaged himself in, he would look at me and smile. Maybe I’m just sappy and read too much into things, but his bright inquisitive eyes seemed to say, “Mom, is what I’m doing really more interesting to you right now than what you were doing on your own?”
And then he would tell me about the trucks he was racing or the tower he was building or the passenger plane he was about to fly to go see his friend Hudson who lives two miles away. Sometimes he wants me to join in the playing with him, but more often than not he just likes having me there, watching and paying attention, finding whatever it is he’s doing to be important–without any begging or pleading on his part.
After I’ve given even just ten minutes of my undivided, unrequested attention, I tell Desmond how much I’ve loved watching him, he plays so well and has such great ideas, but now mama needs to do a few things around the house. He has never once cried or thrown a fit about this, but just continues playing and I can almost always finish my chores (within reason—usually about an hour’s worth) before he’s needing my attention or praise again.
That is what I think it means to be a “fully present parent.” Not to be there at your child’s side every second of every day, but when you are available, be fully available. When you don’t have any other pressing matters to attend to, then take some time to make your child the only pressing matter to attend to.
I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on raising children or getting my own to behave just the way I want him to. This is one idea and strategy I’ve learned for my son and me that is helping us get through the needy toddler stage and our days go a bit more smoothly. But something I’ve learned from all the articles and books I’ve read on parenting is when they say, “Here’s a foolproof method that will work on every child!”…well, not all children are the same, and the same methods will not work on every child. But when I have a mommy tip that works for me, I’ll share it here. I’m sure you have plenty of tricks of the trade of your own that I could learn from; do feel free to divulge!
Because I firmly believe that as mothers we should be unified in making each others’ jobs as easy and judgment-free as possible, while raising our little humans to be the best grownup, future generation of humans that ever lived.