“Daddy, Play With Me!”

An excerpt from: Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children

By Elizabeth Pantley

The clock in Jeff’s car glows 6:40 P.M. as he rolls into the driveway after another long and tiring day at work. He opens the door to his home with a weary sigh and drops the mail next to the answering machine, which is blinking in that incessant, anxious way that demands listening. All he wants is a relaxing evening with no bosses, clients, or coworkers to please.

He peeks into his wife’s home office and greets her warmly. As they chat about their day, she asks if he’d mind fixing dinner so she can finish up a few things. “No problem,” he assures her. Before heading to the kitchen, he pauses to savor a moment’s peace, silently planning out the next few hours: check the mail, listen to messages, take a nice hot shower, change into sweats, fix a quick dinner . . .

“Hi, Daddy! Play with me?” Snapped out of his reverie, Jeff puts on a smile and bends to wrap a hug around the giggling little angel with the hopeful eyes. He twirls her around in big circles and plants kisses on her nose. “Hey, my little Lily-flower!” he croons. He buries his nose in her soft hair, loving the little-child feel and scent of her. Laughing with glee, Lily cherishes these sparkling moments in her daddy’s arms; craving more, she implores, “Play with me?”

“Hey, punkin', I have some things to do; then we’ll play later.”

“Just a little while, Daddy?” she pleads with a smile. But looking at his face, she suddenly knows he’d never drop everything just for some silly play, but she can’t help asking one last time. When the expected answer comes, she wanders off resignedly to watch the TV show that’s always on at this time, always on for her when Daddy’s not.

Lily watches her program, all the while counting the minutes on the clock. Jeff loses himself in the mail, the newspaper, and the answering machine, looking forward to the completion of all his daily responsibilities so that he can play with his daughter. After some time on the computer reading E-mail, he trudges upstairs, loosening his tie. He can almost feel the steamy warmth of the shower, the comfort of those old sweats, the . . . wait, what is this?

He turns to find a beaming little girl, who’d sneaked up the stairs behind him, given away by the soft thumping of her tiny feet. She musters all the vocal sweetness that she imagines a good girl to have and asks, “Can we play now, Daddy?” She doesn’t want to bother him, doesn’t want to pester. She just wants him close to her, laughing his silly laugh just for her.

What Jeff hears is persistence - a trait he will someday appreciate in her as an adult, but one that annoys him today. So, with a ruffle of her hair, he dismisses her with strained patience. “In a little bit, Lily. Why don’t you go ask Mommy if she can play with you now?”

Not so easily put off, she is in position at the bottom of the stairs when he descends some time later. Her little face is fairly bursting with the effort of holding back her request. She doesn’t want to annoy him, doesn’t want to be inconvenient, doesn’t want to be bad-and so, says nothing, hoping he’ll remember his promise to play “later.”

But he doesn’t.

“Ready for some dinner?” he asks, walking quickly past her in an effort to stave off a few repeats of her “Want to play?” chorus. He enters the kitchen and begins pulling items from the refrigerator. Just then, the telephone rings, and little ears listen-as they always do-as Jeff answers. “Hello? Hey, Steven. How are ya? Great. Did you catch the game Sunday? I can’t believe he missed that play . . . ” And so he is lost to her again, this time to adult conversation, phone tucked between ear and shoulder.

Maybe if I’m just quiet and smile real big, Lily thinks. So she looks up at him with every fiber of her being poured into her smile, every good thing in her soul spilling from her eyes. Still on the phone, her daddy smiles back vacantly and plops a plate of dinner down for his daughter, then disappears into his wife’s office with a plate for her, too. Lily’s best smile fades as she quietly eats her dinner to the hum of Daddy’s voice on the phone.

Afterward, of course, the parents are busy. There’s dinner to be cleaned up, garbage to be taken out, bills to pay . . . And all the while, Jeff’s little one-who naturally will not be little forever-patiently and proudly waits beside her latest Lego masterpiece. She just knows he’ll notice it soon. She knows it’s the marvel of engineering brilliance sure to draw him into her world. But the doorbell rings, and Jeff strides right past her to answer. Perhaps after the visitor leaves, she wonders . . .

It’s Rahul, their neighbor. He needs help getting his lawn tractor started. “Hate to bother you, Jeff, but you think you might have a second to look at it?”

“Of course,” Jeff replies, his thoughts registering the day last week when Rahul was there at 6:00 A.M. to jump-start Jeff’s car. “That’s what good neighbors are for.”

After letting his wife know where he’s bound, he reaches down to plant kisses on his daughter’s soft cheeks. “Be right back, punkin',” he says. And he leaves too quickly to notice the silent tears that have begun to run down those same cheeks so hastily kissed, soft cheeks that are soon buried in pillows. When Jeff returns, she is asleep, dreaming of moving out and becoming a neighbor who could ring the doorbell, call Daddy on the phone, and send E-mails to him.

The Hidden Message

“You are not as important to me as the mail, the messages, the dinner, the phone call or the neighbor. I love you, but I’m too busy for you-and there’s always later, there’s always tomorrow.”

Think About It

Children perceive time, and what we do with it, differently from the way adults do. By about age thirty, we adults barely notice the precious seconds. In the currency of time, they’re merely pennies, hardly able to buy anything of value. For little ones, however, every moment is weighty with possibility and so passes heavily and slowly. Consider, for instance, the evening that we just witnessed-it passed particularly slowly for the little girl but it blew past the man who is her father.

Seconds become minutes, of course, and minutes become hours. And imperceptibly, hours become decades. One day, Jeff may turn around to play with his little girl, only to find a young woman too busy tending her own life to notice-after all, she has learned by his example. What a common tragedy! Ask any parent of grown children, and he or she invariably will attest to how fast it all goes. As the popular maxim forewarns: One comment you’ll never hear on a person’s deathbed is “I wish I’d have put in more overtime.” Instead, we all know the final plea is much more likely to be for more time with those whose love fills and sustains us. The hard truth is that we have only a relatively small sliver of time in which to give our children the gifts of our experience, patience, wisdom, and heart.

Naturally, obligations intrude on our every day. We perceive these obligations from an adult point of view, sorting through them, prioritizing as we go. We give a potential interruption to our mental calendars a quick once-over and make a snap decision: adjust the plan, or stick to it? But however we triage the callings in our lives, time marches on. The work gets done. The meals get prepared. The house gets cleaned. Things work out. Of necessity, we allot time for the chores that keep us fed, clothed, clean; these things push themselves into our plans by their very nature. Other items seize our attention with their urgency-a flashing message machine, a ringing phone, a buzzing doorbell. Certain activities, however, don’t call to us so loudly. Yet, these can have an impact more profound than all the others combined: activities such as walking in a park, visiting relatives, tossing a baseball ... or building a Lego city. These are the experiences that build up a soul.

What would happen if, today, all parents made their children their top priority? Nowadays, we often complain about teenagers and their lack of respect for adults, and we worry about the anger and lack of direction that seems to plague them to the point of violence. Yet I meet many parents who tell me that their teenagers are wonderful young people, and that they enjoy their children now, just as they always have. Therein lies an important lesson: We need to begin, right now, at this very moment, to see each second as a gift, as an opportunity to savor where we all are now- whether we do this by playing, chatting, or simply being together with our children. In so doing, we may weave a lifeline that continues to hold throughout the years. When that Lego city gets built, so does the foundation to a future. And a minute of time for a child will someday be worth its equivalent in hours to the adult she becomes. The time we spend with our children at this very moment-nurturing, teaching and loving them-is the substance that helps mold them into the people that they will become.

Changes You Can Make

Review the priorities in your life, make a list of your top five, and begin investing the bulk of your time and energy in those choices. If you are a parent, your list-of course-should include your children. Keep your list of five handy, and refer to it whenever a decision arises. Ask yourself, “Does what I am doing, or about to do, fit into my list of priorities?”

Unlike much advice, this way of living is not “easier said than done.” On the contrary, it’s “easier done than said”! You’ll often be surprised to discover that it doesn’t take hours to fill a child’s need for attention.

Sometimes fifteen minutes will fill your child’s cup-and then allow you to tend to your daily rituals without that nagging sense of guilt, or that feeling that something essential is missing. In this story of Jeff and Lily, if he had dropped everything upon his arrival home and given Lily thirty minutes of undivided attention, he might have fulfilled her need for his love. She might then have been happy to scamper off and allow him to get to his business, or perhaps trailed along with him, letting their connection linger through the evening.

Of course, some daily tasks must be done regardless of their placement of your list. The laundry would definitely not be in my top five, but it still needs to be done! However, having your list will help ensure that these “maintenance” tasks are done with the proper acknowledgement of their importance. This means that I may decide that a game of Monopoly with my children is worth postponing the laundry until after they’ve gone to bed.

As for those must-do tasks, some can be undertaken with a child included as helper or as company-a three-year-old can sit beside you with her plastic kitchen set “preparing” her own dinner, as you prepare dinner for the family; a five-year-old can sort socks or fold hand towels as you fold the other laundry; a seven-year-old can accompany you on your round of errands. In each case, you will very likely enjoy the time talking together.

When you decree that your family and your children are your priority, and that you want, and need, to spend more time with them, your daily decisions will become easier. You may even begin to ascertain that some goals you had rated as “top priority” are supremely unimportant. And as a natural and direct effect, these will fall away, leaving you with two undeniable gains: a heightened and refined sense of values, and the freedom to pursue them.

(Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Hidden Messages - What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley, © 2001)