The title for this article is not original to me. It was the title of a poem written by a friend and if he still had it I would probably share it with you now, but he wrote it when he was a boy and it is apparently lost forever. The message of his poem, however, is one that shouldn’t be lost.
He wrote the poem at a point in life when he wondered if anyone noticed him. When he told a joke, no one seemed to be listening. If he was interrupted in telling a story, nobody asked him to finish it. “Am I here?” he wondered.
This perhaps the most important question a parent can answer for a child. Identity – who am I – is the foundation on which we build all of our relationships and it is the thing on which we lean when life’s troubles shake us.
Most parents don’t deliberately ignore their children. They are just too busy to notice them. In a 24-hour day, the average American spends 7-8 hours sleeping, 2-3 hours in the car, 8-9 hours at work, 2-3 hours watching TV (about 1/3 of that is commercials), 2-4 hours on the Internet (not counting work hours), and 2-4 hours eating, caring for others, and doing household chores. That leaves nothing for face-to-face interaction with children, spouses, and other loved ones. The business of life keeps us from living it.
This is analogous to what I’ve observed in college students who buy a car so they can get to work so they can pay their college bills. Then they end up with a car payment that is more than they can afford so they drop out of college to pay for their cars. The thing that was a necessary tool became the focus of all their attention and their original goal was lost.
Because of easy, ubiquitous access to information in our culture, we spend the majority of our time someplace where we are not. We spend hours on email, texting, Tweeting, or on Facebook interacting with people who are in some other place, who may get our messages at some other time, and very little time looking at the people right in front of us.
At the college where I teach, I had a class last semester that went from just after lunch until late in the afternoon. Each time we took a break, everyone immediately whipped out their cell phones. From my desk in the front I saw the tops of a dozen heads, everyone interacting with the piece of plastic in their hands when there were real live people all around them. That is a sad metaphor of our culture.
We reminisce about the past and plan for the future, but we spend very little time in the present. For example, we buy movies that we have already seen because we want to relive a pleasant moment from the past and we want to be prepared to experience such moments in the future. We live for Friday – TGIF – and when Friday comes we talk about our plans for the weekend. It is hard to communicate value to a child in your presence when your attention is spent in the past or future.
Am I here? You may think you are communicating to your child that he is important, but he will never believe it if you don’t spend time with him. A child knows he is there when you look him in the face, when you patiently listen to his stories, and when you show interest in what is important to him. Tomorrow can wait, the past will always be there, but the here-and-now is the place where we answer the question, “Am I here?”