Expressing parental love by sharing the gifts of time and attention

April 29, 2016

Recently I was in a restaurant enjoying conversation with friends when I saw nearby a family of five all sitting mutely at their meal. Instead of taking the moment to share their day or enthuse about the delicious food, each one was staring individually at an iPhone or iPad. I was quite amazed: the adults were avoiding a connection with their own children.

Of course, you often see adults checking their mobiles at parties, living in a virtual state rather than engaging with other humans and really connecting with people. And I have to admit, I have been one of them. It’s easy to get carried away with some fascinating piece of content or video clip on your phone. We’ve all done it.

But what left me saddened by the restaurant scene was the way that the adults in this case seemed to be avoiding connecting with their own children.

Buying expensive screens to entertain youngsters is no substitute for affection. Nor, for that matter, is dressing your children in designer clothes, often in the same fabric and cut as the adult versions. These children, groomed to be customers of the future in a sophisticated marketing exercise, may feel like charming miniature versions of their parents. But they can unwittingly appear instead to be unwarranted further expressions of their mothers’ and fathers’ pursuit of wealth and status symbols.

It is easy for a child to articulate his or her desire for material goods, often under intense peer pressure for the best playground gizmo. It is far harder and more unusual for children to articulate their need instead for their parents’ time and attention, but that is what they crave the most. Even before we are old enough to express this, we understand that love is a motion as well as an emotion. A moment of genuine interaction trumps the most expensive gift.

I may be being harsh on my fellow diners, and perhaps they had been having a wonderful interactive time before I arrived. But parents must fight the impression that a material gift means love. Otherwise they risk having children whose value system is skewed.

The scenario is not new. Tales through history have warned us of this: in the Brothers Grimm tale of King Thrushbeard, a beautiful, spoilt young princess cannot see love as she is too shallow. She must undertake menial work and know poverty before she learns her lesson about materialism.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl deals with the spoilt children who win golden tickets to see inside Willy Wonka’s world. Veruca Salt is particularly singled out for her demanding nature (and ultimately thrown out with the rubbish).

Even so, Dahl makes it plain where the blame lies: “A girl can’t spoil herself, you know. Who spoiled her, then? Ah, who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? Alas! You needn’t look so far To find out who these sinners are. They are (and this is very sad) Her loving parents, MUM and DAD.”

Yes, if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so, it is wonderful to introduce children to fashion and creativity, the worlds of technology and communication. But we must be careful to do so with modesty, and not to mistake gifts for grace.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation