Parenting from the Sidelines

It’s no secret that children love an audience. From watching my daughter snake through the warm-up pool before her swim lesson, to watching my son perform his ninja-like wall-climbing moves at home, attentiveness matters. This holds true in the academic arena as well as the physical.

My role as a parent to watch and listen seems passive, but its impact is both immediate and longlasting.

When my son can recite his times table to me, it’s more enjoyable than him practicing out loud alone. In fact, all the prep work he did on his own was in anticipation of the “performance.” When my daughter tells me her creative story about great-horned owls, she looks forward to my responses. She wonders if I’ll gasp, or laugh or cringe at the appropriate places. (And I do).

This passive role I appear to play, as an audience member to my children’s ongoing endeavors, can be underestimated in a culture that values activity more than passivity. If all I seem to be doing is driving my kids here, there and everywhere, packing lunches and watching endless swim and dance lessons, I can seem to be the dull background character in the real life drama called Family. And no one likes to play the bit part.

The starring role for a parent, however, is misleading. We are at our best, truly, when we are willing to take off the flamboyant costume of the lead character, and say our one or two lines with deep feeling. When we are willing to play second fiddle to our budding young actors, our children, we allow them to shine. And shine they do! And so those two or three “lines” I squeeze into our mini-van hours, really do add up in the long run.

The role of listening, watching, being present and basically playing a strong supporting role goes unsung for many long-suffering parents. The passive joys of seeing my child do well, though, far outweighs the drawbacks of losing life’s spotlight on myself and my own achievements. I love to watch my children tackle a new diving position in the deep end of the local pool. I love to sit and watch them play tag with their friends in the field outside their community classroom. I love to hear the stories behind their artwork.

Listening is another unsung joy of the passive parent.

In a world crowded with micro-conversations, texts, twitters and newscasts, listening to my children may look fairly boring and inconsequential. It’s not. Their way of seeing the world is revealed in their conversations. Their comments and questions are full of wonder about how things work. They are usually funny. Always insightful. And very loving towards others, they often show more concern over small things than I do.

In fact, children miss very little. By stopping to listen to them closely and attentively, I am reminded to miss less. To pay more attention.

Passive listening means I keep most of my own comments to myself, focusing on provoking their own thoughts. The more I pave the way for them to take intellectual risks, the more confidence they gain with each new step. My quietness is passive, but not uninterested. I am very interested in what they have to say, interested enough to say little.

Watching also doesn’t look like much from the outside. But—for the one being watched, it means the world!

There is joy and connection, affirmation and shared confidence in it. It is the basic building block between a child and an adult. “I am watching,” says so much to a child. “I can see you,” speaks to anyone on a deep level, but to a child it’s formational. They are being watched. They are becoming known. They are growing and someone is there to see it, celebrate it and watch over it.

Listening has the same great results, despite its passive appearance. While we all benefit from being heard, for a child it’s timely. When a child is listened to, when eye contact is made and interruptions are kept at bay, they learn how to speak and to think. And even how to relate. This is because the act of speaking is not a one-way street. Neither is thinking or being in relationship. Life is a two-way street. To speak well, we need to be listened to, just as well. To learn to think, we must read the cues (non-verbal and verbal) of what kind of reaction our thoughts are having on others. Iron sharpens iron. We need someone to bounce our ideas off of, even if we’re three, five, ten or 12-years-old. (Especially when we are young!) We then adjust accordingly.

If we are really listened to, we learn what we have to say matters.

So, we think a little bit longer next time we have something to say. We want to matter. We are all able to think and do better than we think we can. But, usually we need to be reminded of this. We need someone to remind us that what we have to say matters, and that we are able of great thoughts. In other words, we need someone to listen to what we are saying, even if we’re just learning to string a sentence together. This is the role of a passive parent.

Watching and listening take time. Copious amounts of time that few of us have, but that every child needs. Sometimes it’s a good idea, as parents, to remind ourselves of the big important job we’re doing, even when it looks like we’re doing nothing. When we find ourselves sitting on a uncomfortable chair, watching lessons from a crowded poolside deck, or dodging makeshift ninja equipment, or listening to the times table for the 15th time, we can remember: we’re doing a great job.

Here’s to allowing others their time to shine! To watch & listen…