Are Your Kids Afraid to Talk to You?
When was the last time one of your coworker’s children barged into their office during a zoom meeting? It’s happened to everyone at some point. Did you immediately think, “What a terrible person. I can’t believe they are so unprofessional and such a terrible parent. They need to slap some manners into that kid”? Or did you think, “That’s a cute kid. I’ve been there before”? But if I think the second whenever it happens to someone else, why do I assume everything else is thinking the first when it happens to me?
The other day I was on a call—a simple internal discussion of no consequence—when my youngest came up to my desk blabbering about some funny thing he saw on YouTube. I shushed him, told him I was on a call, and apologized to everyone on the line. They didn’t care.
A few minutes later he was back. I could see him coming from the far end of the hall, iPad in hand, some urgent question on his lips. I put a finger up to remind him to be quiet, in case he didn’t notice the headphones still in my ears, but he blew right past the stop signs.
Jackson: “Daddy, can you play pokemon with me?”
Me: (pausing mid-sentence) “No, buddy, shhh, I’m on the phone. I can play when I’m done.”
Jackson: “How much longer?”
Me: “A few more minutes.”
At this point I was a little annoyed. I’d already told him I was on the phone. I don’t have many meetings, and it was almost the end of the day, so I just wanted to get it over with. But it was fine. I was a little embarrassed, but I kept talking. No harm done.
30 seconds later, as I’m explaining some undoubtedly vital reporting specification, I hear, “Daddy, can—”
“Jackson,” I said sternly, “I can’t play. I told you I’m on the phone. You need to be quiet. I’ll come out when I’m done. Don’t ask me again.”
The look of terror and confusion on his face (I didn’t yell, but for me, this was an anger he doesn’t often see) was like he had walked onto a hidden landmine. I was instantly struck with guilt. But I turned back to my screen. He deserved it. He was rude. He needed to learn. This was my job, our livelihood, which was more important than…dammit. I apologized to him later.
An interruption, even three, made no difference to my meeting or to anyone on my phone. If they even heard his cute little voice asking his daddy to play, they probably would have smiled. But it mattered to him. He just wanted to talk to me, to ask me a question, to invite me to join him, as he always does, every day, a million times. He has no idea what I’m doing at my desk, whether I’m on the phone or not, that would make it different than any other time. And he has no concept of time. In his little universe, it probably felt like an hour had passed between requests.
It’s true I wasn’t going to be able to get off my call and play or get him strawberries or answer his questions or whatever else he wanted. It’s true that he needs to learn to respect when others are busy or in the middle of a conversation or work or whatever. But I did not teach him that by snapping at him. My anger or annoyance or perceived embarrassment (falsely) will not teach him that. He doesn’t yet understand that context, so it will merely teach him, if anything, to hesitate before talking to me at all. He won’t remember me being in a meeting or doing work—he has literally no idea what I do at my desk all day—but the fear will stick with him.
This is not the kind of fear you want. In some ways, he should fear me. I’m bigger and stronger than he is, and I have all the money. I decide whether we buy strawberries or chips or bacon or iPads and when he gets to have them. I decide when he has to go to bed or get dressed or go to school, whether it’s time to go outside or come in for dinner. It only takes a few times of being carried upstairs or dragged to the car or denied a treat after dinner before he gets the idea. After a couple of wrestling matches, he realizes he can’t actually win. I have all the power in our relationship, and he knows it, even if sometimes he checks again, just to make sure.
I want him to feel that fear when he does something he knows is wrong. He should be a little afraid to hit his sister. He should trembled when telling a lie. He should fear yelling at his mother like he fears running into traffic. But he should never fear being himself, being a kid, wanting to talk to his daddy. He should not be afraid to ask me a question or share his excitement. I want him to come to me, no matter where I am. Yes, sometimes it is annoying, and sometimes I will have to turn him away or ask him to wait, but then, sometimes I could invite him in, put him in my lap, and turn his hesitation to excitement and his fear to joy. I do love him, after all. My coworkers won’t mind. He’s a cute kid.
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