It’s always a small chuckle when someone comes out with still another version of the old truism, “If you’re not currently filled with anxiety, you’re either not paying attention – or you’re dead.” That’s a tad over-the-top, sure, but there is (obviously) a lot to be anxious about “out there.”
The thing is, that’s always been true of modern life. Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling that is also information to you about what you have to deal with, a signal that something is happening that requires attention. My concern is that the very human “not paying attention” reaction has spread like wildfire. It’s become so widespread, it’s changing behavior and cultural norms. Not paying attention has morphed into a culturally accepted coping strategy, instead of something to be regretted, slightly embarrassed about – to be fought against, and be properly reproached for having fallen prey to it.
It isn’t just that attention spans are shorter (although they are), it’s also that more than ever people are intentionally, unapologetically, even aggressively, “not paying attention” – to the news, to what’s going on in the wider community, or to other peoples’ stories and struggles. They’re not paying attention because paying attention is no longer an indication of confidence, maturity, and also a necessary cultural obligation of enlightened citizenship – essential for self-management and personal learning. Apparently we’re all off the hook now because – after all – we’re tired, busy, and stressed enough already. We’re doing the best we can!
Well… okay. But the thing is …
.. the children are watching. That never changes. In fact, they’re not just watching, they’re inhaling actual parental feelings: the sincere effort to provide love and material security – yes – but also the entire mix of anxieties, doubts, fears, anger, contradictions, and all the ambivalence associated with being human while also trying to care responsibly for vulnerable children.
It’s essential to keep in mind that children are uncanny, virtually unerring when it comes to accurately detecting and gauging the amount and true nature of the emotional energy their primary caregivers actually have for dealing with their needs.
The point is that of course it’s OK for anxiety to be there; it would actually be a shock if it wasn’t. But anxiety shouldn’t “win” in the sense that it shouldn’t succeed at causing a parent to tune out, to look the other way, or to be given a pass (“I understand why”) allowing them to not pay attention. That can sound stern, but it’s the difference between the “normal” stresses and problems, as opposed to the blatantly missed signals and unforced errors that go with a parent not keeping his or her concentration.
Self-learning is crucial. That means being aware of what you thought you knew to be true, but now realize (by having paid attention) that it’s not the case. That’s the essential updating, re-setting, navigating in real time based on current info and immediate perceptions. Your children feel more secure when they know you’re watching despite being tired, and also know you have the self-confidence and emotional energy to lean forward, flex your parent muscles, and say “based on what I’m seeing, this is what I gotta have.” That’s when kids feel secure.
Your kids will thank you – maybe – when they’re 37.