Our Shocking Lack of Presence

December 18, 2014
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When Danish dialogue facilitator and specialist in conflict mediation and reconciliation, Carl Plesner, was talking to a group of fifth graders about wellbeing and conflict mediation in school, he asked one of his routine question a bit differently than usual. The children’s responses shocked him.

The session with the kids was based around a dialogue with a set of “need cards” as the basis for their talk. The cards depicted 60 “universal needs” that all humans regardless of culture, religion, gender, age and geographic location have in common. Things like friendship, safety, closeness, intimacy, protection, rest, peace, calm, learning, acceptance, and food. The children sat in a circle around the cards. Ordinarily, Plesner would ask the group which needs they want to put more focus on in the their class room. But on this day, he asked instead without thinking, which needs the children wanted to experience more of in their life.

The children begin to talk. The third child that spoke was a boy. As he begins to talk, he burst into tears. In his hand he was holding the card closeness. He tries again to speak, but the tears choke the words in his throat. Another child, a girl, also begins to cry. She is holding the word friendship in her hand. She begins to tell the group that she yearns for friendship with her parents, about how busy they are all the time at home, about the harsh tone in the morning when everyone is rushing out of the house to work and school, and about the afternoons when her parents rush through dinner to get back to their pc’s to put in a few extra hours of work before putting them to bed. She says how much she wants to make dinner with her father, but that she feels he is unavailable because he is lost in his own world, constantly checking his mobile phone, answering messages and listening to music.

Many of the children begin to cry and tell their own similar stories. The teacher passes around tissues. Plesner gathers the children in closer and listens to their stories. All the children listen intently to each other. In the space there is calm, focused attention and deep connection. They all tell different versions of the same story. How intently they yearn for contact with their parents and how much they need their parents to just spend time with them.

Plesner asks the boy who chose the card “closeness”, the boy who was choked with emotion and could not speak, why he chose that particular card. He sighs and tells the group about his father, who travels often and is rarely home. Plesner asks this child what he defines as “closeness”. The child answers to be seen and understood by his father. Plesner swallows back his own tears at this point and digs a bit deeper. He asks him how it feels not to be seen or understood by his father. He answers “it feels like a huge, cold, black hole inside of me.”

The children’s stories moved Plesner deeply. Since then he has asked this same question to 8 other classes and the answers have been very much the same, regardless of age. He says, “I am shocked at the number of children that experience a lack of emotional closeness and connection at home. It saddens me deeply.”

He presents this thought to all parents to contemplate: “We MUST prioritize our children and make that feel, experience that they are a priority in our lives. Allow ourselves to see and be moved by their lives. Many families are experience much stress in balancing work and family life, it seems like this balancing act has never been harder. But what is more important? That we get to work on time or that our children are happy? If we do not prioritize our children, we have, in my opinion, betrayed our responsibility to our children and as a parent.”

He asks us to think about our legacy as a parent and when our time is done in this life, what will we remember with the most joy, the most fondness? Closeness and connection with our children? Or that report that we wanted to get finished before we put our kids to bed – who sat silently and looked at us with sorrow & longing for our presence?

We must do more than just contemplate these questions, we must simply own our emotional responsibility to our children. Every day.

The fact is we are all busy. You see, it isn’t just busyness that takes us away from our kids, that is just the external form it takes. It first comes from our mental engagements – what you are choosing to focus on throughout the day. For most of us, we focus on ourselves – our stresses, our frustrations, our worries, our fears – all of which take up ALL the space in our minds. These conditioned thoughts, beliefs and assumptions make up the egoic mind. And most of us are run by this part of our minds.

Robin Simon, professor of sociology at Wake Forest University found that parents are more likely to focus on mundane duties during the day such as the school run or mealtimes, rather than the less frequent but more happiness-inducing moments such as a first smile, first step, or even just a goodnight cuddle. (Source: Psychologies article, Do Children Make Us Happier).

Before my clients begin to wake up to the healing and connective power of shifting their focus, the tendency of focusing on the negative, the stress, the anxiety of the day, is quite unconscious. That is because of the brain’s “negative bias“. Our brain is actually built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant stimuli. It is like this negative bias keeps us locked in the egoic, ME part of our sense of reality and separated from actually SEEING others and connecting from a deeper part of ourselves.

Because we don’t intend to neglect the emotional needs of our children, that is just the effect of the ME based egoic mind and the brain’s negative bias. But we can change our habitual tendencies with practice! The first thing to do is to SEE this, to recognize it in the moment and STOP. Just ask yourself throughout the day… what am I focusing on right now? Stop in that moment and switch your focus. It is as easy as shifting your gaze from your cup of coffee on your desk to the vase of roses. Shift your gaze and then do nothing but get curious….open up to truly SEEING your child beyond your egoic interpretation, your judgements, your assumptions or even expectations. Just open up and SEE him.

A simple yet profound act of love. Truly the greatest gift you could ever give your child.

Become a conscious parent, practice this each day and it will become habitual and you will see your children blossom in so many ways and your heart and your relationships heal.

Wishing you a VERY Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from me!

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Note: Carl Plesner trains people in restorative dialogues, nonviolent communication and conflict mediation. Both in private business, schools, the public sector and open trainings.

Link to full article in Danish

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