Are you paying attention?

If you are a parent of young children then you have probably spent hours sitting along the edges of a heavily chlorinated pool filled with youngsters while your little one learns how to swim. Living on the coast our family spends hours in the ocean year round. However, the importance of swimming lessons in order to develop water safety skills can’t be underestimated here in Australia. So every week our youngster is off to our local, ridiculously overheated indoor swimming pool, in order to splash around and work on his swimming.

However, I have noticed a disturbing trend at my son’s swimming lessons. The trend is this: hardly anybody is watching what their child is doing.

I am not talking about adequate supervision here. The instructors in the pool with the children know exactly what they are doing and are ensuring that our children are safe in the water. What concerns me is not the lack of supervision that parents provide at swimming lessons but the lack of attention that parents are paying their children.

Now I know that swimming lessons are not exactly a spectator sport. I am aware that every week children engage in essentially the same activities of kicking behind a kick board, practicing their back floats and splashing each other. Your child, however, is not aware that this may be a boring activity for you to watch. What they are aware of is whether or not you are looking at them. The amount of time that they look over at you, or wave, or smile after a mistake looking for some reassurance from you are numerous, and every one that goes unnoticed by you I am sure has a negative effect.

This is a trend that extends beyond swimming lessons. This trend extends to parents checking their phones while they eat dinner with their children, while their children play in the yard with them and when they tuck them in bed at night.

And, although smart phones do tend to be the main culprit, these are not the only distractions that take our attention from our children.

I remember one sunny Saturday morning at the beach observing a father berate his little girl for accidently kicking sand on his broadsheet newspaper while she tried to build a sandcastle in front of him. While I understand this father’s frustration he is missing the point. The days of leisurely reading his broadsheet at the beach on a Saturday morning are over. He needs to let the newspaper go and embrace the season that he is in. His little girl needs his attention. She needs to see that her daddy thinks that her creations and her efforts are important and valued, not an irritation and interruption to the grown up activities of life. Besides, a daughter is infinitely more fascinating and captivating than today’s news.

There is a mountain of literature in psychology on the positive impact that the loving attention of a parent has on a child. Such attention is often described in research into secure parent-child attachment, the development of empathy and when describing the nature of responsive parenting. In addition, research into child development informs us that children learn from direct interaction with their loved ones and the environment around them.

The take home message from data such as this seems clear: children thrive when given regular, loving, parental attention.

However, none of this should be that surprising to us. Providing your child with loving attention seems relatively common sense.

So if I could encourage you try leaving your phone in your pocket, or on the kitchen table, when you are with your children. Set yourself time to check your social media accounts or stream live sport when your children are in bed or at school. I guarantee you that in 10 years time you will struggle to remember one status update from Facebook. But your children will not forget whether you watched them swim across the pool for the first time or if you were too busy checking your phone.