How Not To Raise An Invisible Child

My wife, daughter, and I went to out to dinner last night. After ordering, my wife leaned in to the center of the table and said softly, “When you can, turn around and look at the table behind you.”

I waited a moment and then pretended to look at some people chatting as they came in the door. As I turned, I glanced at the table behind us. There was a couple and a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl sitting there. Nothing unusual, except for the fact that the couple was engaged in deep conversation, turned slightly towards each other, completely ignoring the girl who was listening to her IPod while reading a book.

As I stood at the counter to pay the bill they were in the exact same configuration: couple talking, girl listening to music, reading her book. I watched the girl and could feel her desire to disappear completely, to become invisible. I sensed that she felt invisible to her parents – if they were her parents – and wanted to become invisible to everyone else so that we wouldn’t see her being unseen.

My heart called out to her. I wanted her to look over at me so I could smile at her and let her know, with a quick smile, that she was visible, that she was beautiful. But she didn’t. She looked straight ahead into her book.

As a father striving to be the best possible dad I can be, that scene caused a bit of agitation within me. Melissa put it very clearly into words once we were outside, when she said, “I don’t ever want to be like that!”

It’s very easy to look at a family like that and go into judgment. But as the saying goes, “until you have walked in their moccasins…” There’s no way of knowing what was happening in that family, if indeed, it was a family. And so, instead of making assumptions and judgments about them, I looked at the message for me.

It’s interesting that this happened at the end of a three-day teaching weekend for my wife. Because of our 10-day Thanksgiving adventure, this weekend snuck up on us and, on Wednesday, when we realized it was coming and attempted to find childcare for Ella, everyone was booked. So I had spent three-days as the main caretaker for Ella. And looking back on that time, I noticed some things in my fathering that I’m not thrilled about.

It’s easy to get distracted when you’re eating a meal alone with a three-year-old. Right? Right. I mean, Ella does not yet have the communication skills necessary to engage in a very stimulating conversation. Sure our conversations are cute, but it can get awfully tiring responding ten-times to, “Dada’s cereal?” “Uh huh.” “Ella’s cereal?” “Yup.”

After about the 5th round of “Uh huh,” when I have finished eating and Ella is still picking up her O’s one at a time, examining each one completely before popping it in her mouth, it’s quite tempting to look for something else to do.

But here’s the thing: If, while I’m eating breakfast with Ella, I pick up a magazine or begin opening my mail (which I have done) how am I being any different than those parents at the restaurant? What messages am I sending to Ella?

How about: “I’m not interested in what you have to say.” Or, “These bills are more important than you.” Or, “When you get a bit older and can communicate better, maybe I’ll pay more attention to you.”

Not great messages to be sending to anyone let alone a malleable three-year-old.

Now without getting in to a long-winded discourse on my parenting philosophy, I will point out that I do recognize the need for balance: There are definitely times when it is appropriate to encourage Ella to do her own thing.

I certainly do not want her to grow up feeling invisible but neither do I want her to be at the other end of that spectrum, feeling like she is entitled to my – or anyone else’s – attention 100% of the time. So when I’m working on something or cleaning up and she is attempting to get my full attention, I gently encourage her to find something to do on her own.

But if we’re together for a meal that is family time, and I want to be present with Ella and whomever else I am with.

So there were two important messages for me in witnessing this scene:

First, I want to be fully present with Ella when I am with her especially during meals. I want her to grow up feeling seen and heard for who she is.

Second (and this is an important point for me to claim) I need to be much more proactive in arranging for childcare on Melissa’s teaching weekends. Here’s why: I can’t be fully present with Ella for three-days nor am I supposed to. In order for me to be successful at the first point, I have to create a healthy balance between my time with Ella and my time alone and/or with other adults.

Clearly, three-days of mostly solo fathering is too much.

Here are a couple of questions for you parents out there:

Are there any ways that you encourage invisibility in your children? Are there times that you ignore your kids or tune them out or plop them down in front of the TV?

I want you to just notice without judging. Remember, awareness is the first step to change.

Now if you did notice situations in which you were not as fully present with your child as you would like, ask yourself, “What do I need in order to change this?”

Do you need more childcare? Do you need more help from your partner? Do you need to call on family and friends more often? Do you need to explain to your child that there are times when you will be focused and present with him or her and other times when you will be focused on other things?

What will enable you to be fully present with your child?

It’s not an easy question. I certainly don’t have a simple answer. But just by asking the question, there is a much better chance that your child will feel seen.

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      10 Responses to “How Not To Raise An Invisible Child”

      1. Matt Stone on December 11th, 2006 8:09 pm

        Edward,

        Often what we try so hard to give our children isn’t necessarily a better gift. By ignoring a child, the child benefits in many ways. Perhaps she has more time to read. Perhaps she is more compelled to accomplish things with fiery determination later in life because she isn’t recognized. Perhaps she learns how to find strength within herself, and doesn’t depend on others to give it to her. These are just a few possibilities, but it’s obvious that what we commonly label as “bad” parenting is still a gift. Realize that no matter how you treat your child, no matter what you do as a parent, your actions have an effect. Every effect has benefits and drawbacks — there is no escaping it. Ultimately, your kids will take the many things you offer through reward and reprimand — through attention and neglect, and shape their own lives with those equally important gifts. You cannot fail. Hope this is liberating.

      2. Lynne on December 12th, 2006 6:10 am

        Good morning! I have just begun reading your blog and I found this one particularly interesting.
        My initial thought about the girl and her parents was “Right on, how cool it is that she even wanted to go out with them.”
        Now, who knows if that is even true:) That is just my story!

        I have two sons 19 and 21…fantastic young men. As they grow into adulthood I am curious about what worked for them and what didn’t (in my parenting style). Both have felt loved, nurtured, adored and accepted for who they are. Not too shabby.

        When they were 4 and 6, I was widowed….I think they spent about 6 months in front of the TV playing nintendo. They also ate alot of pizza! I was out of it! Well, they are resiliant and they did just fine.

        I guess what I am trying to say here is be easy. As long as she knows that she is loved, adore, accepted, etc…sometimes a little mail reading during cheerios will be just fine!

      3. Edward on December 12th, 2006 8:48 am

        The mind spends most of it’s time thinking about self. Some say 97% of the time. This is a great contribution you have made to kindly remind others to be compassionate.

      4. Edward Mills on December 12th, 2006 9:15 am

        Hi Matt

        It’s very interesting for me to notice a little bit of charge that came up when I read your comment. I’ll be paying attention to that to see what it’s about over the next few days.

        Yes. I agree that everything we do has positive and negative (if you choose to label them in those terms) ramifications. I believe that my job as a parent is less about being a good father and more about staying out of the way. In other words, I want my daughter to remain as fully connected to Source as possible. So I want to choose parenting behaviors that encourage her to remain connected to Source.

        And while I agree with you that all of our actions have the potential for positive and negative interpretations and results, there are certain behaviors that I would never choose to model for my daughter since I believe the harm done would greatly outweigh any potential benefits.

        For instance, I will never hit her. That’s my decision as a father. I know there are some who believe that spanking and other forms of physical punishment are appropriate. I don’t.

        So, as for “ignoring” my daughter, as I mentioned in the post, there are definitely times when I feel it is appropriate to ignore her. For instance, she is in a phase right now where she whines when she doesn’t get what she wants. I’ve made it very clear to her that when she whines, I turn off. When she wants to connect with me she stops whining.

        However, when we are sitting down to eat, that feels like connection time. For me, that is a time that I choose to be fully present.

        In this hectic world, there are so many times that I am physically present but focused on something else. (Not a great way to be, but I’m working on it!) I choose to make mealtime a time for connection.

        Thanks for the comment.

        ed

      5. Edward Mills on December 12th, 2006 9:21 am

        Hi Lynne

        Welcome to Evolving Times and thanks for the comment. And thanks for the encouragement to lighten up. I think that Matt might have been making a similar suggestion in a slightly different way! (Yes Matt?)

        I actually am pretty light with myself when it comes to parenting. I do recognize that I am going to make “mistakes” and that those mistakes will be perfect.

        And, at the same time, I recognize that parenting is an amazing vehicle for self awareness and personal growth.

        In many ways, I fell that the positive changes I make in my parenting will benefit me more than my daughter! But if there is anything I can do to increase the chance of her growing up to be a more fully Source-connected adult, I will do it.

        Thanks again.

        ed

      6. Edward Mills on December 12th, 2006 9:28 am

        Edward

        Nice name!

        Thanks for the comment. That’s interesting to hear that the mind spends as much as 97% of the time thinking about self. I can definitely believe it!

        Take care.
        ed

      7. Andy on December 13th, 2006 10:41 pm

        This is a very touching post because I think any parent who truly loves their child shares your desire to communicate that love through action as well as words. Like you, I sometimes find myself thinking about other things when I’m with my children, even though I should be showing them that they’re my top priority. Some of that will come with time as they grow to adulthood, but as you’ve pointed out, we have to actively work at it to make it a reality.

        It breaks my heart to think about ever hurting my children’s feelings because I’m too calloused or too caught up in my own thoughts and worries to make time for them. You’ve made me recommit to doing a better job!

      8. The Carnival of Thoughtful Consideration #1 at ThoughtfulConsideration.com on December 13th, 2006 10:53 pm

        […] Evolving Times presents How Not To Raise An Invisible Child posted at Evolving Times. […]

      9. Edward Mills on December 14th, 2006 7:30 am

        Hi Andy
        I know that I can always recommit to doing a better job! Even if that means just showing up fully.
        Thanks for the comment. And thanks for including the post in your carnival.

        ed

      10. Raj on June 5th, 2007 6:06 am

        Growing up, I was ignored as a child, but not as you folk mean…. I had early puberty, so the ramifications both socially, and emotionally were huge.
        Now firstly Ive always been very sensitive and introverted, yet highly intelligent, driven, and even at a oyung age, independant to certain degrees (given my age).
        Heres the invisible part, my emotions/personality/emotional needs, were ignored, the effects of their arguments on me were ignored, the verbal impact of what they said was ignored, the choices they made for my life, and the effect were ignored, I was so invisible that i had been put in a situation after 16 years, where I had some form of breakdown akin to developing bpd.
        All was needed, was nurture care, and taking the time to understand a child….as a person, who they are, and what they need, how they react, what makes the laugh, smile, cry, where they want to go, supporting them, but letting them be.
        Ive now lost a decade of my life, woke up at 27 after intensive therapy, believe me…. its not nice, and theres nothing my parents can do to make up for it.
        My point is….no parent is perfect….no child is a saint, but as parents, we have a duty to treat our kids right, help them grow into strong independant young adults.

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