One of the recent buzz-words around parenting/ educational circles is the importance of "presence". In today's increasingly busy society where children are spending more and more time in school and clubs or with child-minders, many parents and professionals are noticing the detrimental effect on these children, brought about by the absence of their parents (eg this article, The Importance of Presence). Far from the 'socialisation' that children are somehow supposed to experience by being around large groups of non-family for much of their lives, experts are realising that what they actually need is just time to be with their family. Family is where we first learn who we are, how to relate to others , how to learn from mistakes - it's where we get our sense of identity and place in the world. School does not offer any of those opportunities to anywhere near the same degree.
So although I would never tell anyone that they should or should not put their child in school, the current trend towards leaving children in breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, weekend clubs etc does really bother me (as mentioned in Society Gone Insane). Parents who want to give their child the best opportunities in life end up running ridiculous and exhausting timetables as they run from ballet class to music lesson to football club to Cub scouts etc - leaving their child(ren) with very little time at home to relax, play imaginatively, and just be with family! I'm not anti-club per se: my boys used to do Tumble-tots/ Gymbobs and Sunday churchgroups - if they wanted to (they currently don't), they'd be welcome to join Scouts or other interest groups - but then, they do have LOTS of time at home to relax and find themselves - just to be (another Home Ed benefit: space for the children to just chill at home and find their own identity). My concern for those who are away from home so much is this: when do they get time to relate to their family? When do they get time to just hang out together, share meals or fun activities - even sharing chores can be an important validation of them as a family member as long as that's not the only thing you do together.
Enter the concept of "presence". It's not just the opposite of absence in the sense of just being present in the same room as someone... it means to be FULLY present - to engage with your child in whatever activity has their interest, and give them your full attention. In my mind when I think 'presence', I think "joining in". I have a friend who's good at this - her boys are really into Doctor Who, so she's into it too - watches it with them, learns all kinds of cool behind-the-scenes details to share etc. For us (with the exception of the lovely David Tennant), Dr Who holds very little appeal - but Eldest since he was very small has always loved wildlife, particularly undersea creatures. I really wanted to encourage him but couldn't see how it was something we could pursue practically together (not being in a position to do deep-sea-diving trips as a family hobby), so we widened the field of interest: joined the RSPB (it's a wildlife conservation group, not just birds!), bought some bug books and started getting out there, exploring the natural world immediately around us. He was already really interested in bugs and other wildlife as well as the undersea ones - and us joining in not only encouraged his passion but also sparked our own interest. In fact, I discovered that actually I really love wildlife and being outdoors too - and in one or two areas my learning has even overtaken his (although he still knows way more about ocean creatures than anyone else I know). All of this led to a lovely moment yesterday after I had put the younger two boys to bed, and I came downstairs to see how Eldest wanted to spend his pre-bedtime slot. It tends to be about 30 - 60 minutes long, and he usually chooses either me reading him a book (even though he is a fluent reader there is still real value in snuggling up and sharing a story together), or watching a nature documentary with me, or watching Clone Wars with Daddy if he's home. Yesterday however he surprised me by saying "I want to look at birds with you". He'd put two pairs of binoculars on the sofa, and we snuggled up to see what we could see. Of course, it was about 7.30pm, so most of the little birds had all gone for the day, but we did see a few woodpigeons - and most importantly, I was able to share some time with my son - one to one, communicating without words that he was important to me and what he cared about, I cared about. Just being - just sharing the moment. It may have been one of the least successful birdwatching sessions ever, but it was what HE wanted to do, and the invitation was put out there to join him in that moment... to be PRESENT for him.
Parents of schoolchildren can do this too - I'm not saying 'Presence' belongs exclusively in the HE domain - not at all! All I am saying is that for us, when the boys were at school our free time was so insanely packed with chores (homework, housework, other work) that we had to work really hard to squeeze in some "Quality Time": ie to be present with them. Even taking the family on a daytrip out doesn't guarantee moments of 'presence' - and that's coming from someone who LOVES family daytrips. Whether at home surrounded by chores or out on a visit to the zoo, it's all about enjoying the moment with your child - washing the car together (but laughing, not shouting if they miss a bit) - or copying the monkey's funny faces together - or sitting on the sofa looking for already-gone birds together...
I'm spotting a theme: for 'presence' think 'together' - but not just together in the same room... (especially nowadays when you can have family members in the same room all experiencing different things: one on the TV, one on the laptop (I know what I'm talking about), one reading, one on the D/S or other games console etc)... it's being together in the same moment! It's one of the most valuable gifts you can give to your child - and the best thing about this particular gift is that you get to share it too! The special moments I share with my boys are always gifts to me as well! When we are present in a moment together, we are both blessed by the gift of presence.