When Busyness Becomes a Substitute for Deliberate Parenting

My family and I recently returned from a memorable vacation to Yellowstone National Park. For three days, we were awestruck by the wild wonders of the park, including a dramatic eruption of Old Faithful, vast herds of bison roaming the Hayden Valley, and the majestic power of the lower falls rushing through the canyon. While in the park, we had no cell phone reception. Thankfully, we were forced to disengage from the perpetual call of responsibilities back home. Each evening, instead of checking our smartphones, we played board games in a cabin we rented in West Yellowstone.

Our vacation ended too soon and we quickly plugged ourselves back into real life. We came home just in time to reset the sprinkler system and save our dying front lawn, complete a late club soccer registration, and help our older son pack his bags for a summer sales job in California.

Admittedly, keeping busy has its advantages. The kids rarely complain of boredom and we don’t have much time to worry about whether life is meeting our expectations. But our time in Yellowstone reminded us of the benefits of slowing down and being more fully present with our children. We enjoyed a small taste of what Henry David Thoreau describes in Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We can learn to live deliberately without building a cabin in the woods, but it’s hard when we find ourselves in the midst of a dizzying schedule of daily activities. Busyness is a problem when we allow others to define and order our family priorities and when we stop paying meaningful attention to our children and their challenges. Most parents would like to live more purposely in the present, to take more time to notice their children, and to face neglected problems with an intentional strategy. But we too often lack the urgency or perhaps the wisdom to pause and purposely break free of our addiction to the busy life.

So how can we alter our frenetic lifestyles and embrace more deliberate parenting? First, we need to find a way to focus more consistently on our highest priorities. If it’s been a while since we’ve consulted with family members in defining and ordering those priorities, this is the first step. Without a well-defined list of family priorities, we’re like sailors lost at sea without nautical charts, driven wherever the winds take us.

Ideally, family priorities dictate which events and activities end up on our calendars each week. But even with careful planning, heavy social responsibilities inevitably take us off course. PTA meetings, church activities, sporting events, and music lessons are all important, but they can easily get out of control. This is why we need to set aside regular blocks of time to reexamine our lives and assess our priorities. A monthly family council can be used to check our bearings and set a new course, dropping unessential activities that are distracting us from quality family interaction and relationships.

Cutting down our list of daily activities can help us pay greater attention to parenting challenges that require patient and calm deliberation. Mental illness, bullying, learning disorders, and video game addiction are just a few of the formidable challenges faced by today’s parents.

Abraham Lincoln’s advice to lawyers applies to parents as well: “When I have a particular case in hand, I…love to dig up the question by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fires of the mind.” Like Lincoln, we can cultivate the ability to give undivided attention to our most deeply rooted problems. Anger, frustration, and moving on to the next activity can all divide our attention and leave our problems unsolved.

French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil describes why it’s so difficult to maintain our focus: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” She continues: “That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” Indeed, it’s usually easier to stay busy with shallow concerns than to dive into the deep end. But sustained focus on concrete problems opens our minds to fresh strategies and provides new hope for ourselves and our loved ones.

The key to more deliberate, intentional parenting is largely a matter of replacing busyness with greater focus: prioritizing family activities and removing unnecessary commitments, deliberating over our family’s challenges, and being fully present when we’re with each other.