Displaced Attention -- Guest Blog by Scott Hanley

The other day I was sitting at breakfast in a busy outdoor cafe in the pedestrian heavy Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. It is a pet and child friendly restaurant and there were many of both scattered about. A particularly young couple and their new baby of about 6 months was sitting across the sidewalk area from us. I began to notice that each of them individually was completely focused on the baby. I generally like this behavior and I particularly like when parents are attentive to the many little things with regard to their children. As I was watching, another young couple came over with their dog to say hello. The parents looked up momentarily to return the “hello” but in the same breath regained eye contact with their baby while continuing talking to their friends. I realize having a new baby, especially when young, is a consummate experience and significant focus and attention will be directed towards the new baby, at least in the beginning.  But this might have been a bit much. It might have been way too soon to judge and I am the first one to compliment parents for whom their children are designated an unconditional priority. It did feel a little over the top, however.

In any case, my mind thought of all the benefits this child would reap by having such adoring and attentive parents should they maintain this level of focus. Then I also thought, “What if the parents hovered with too much attention?” I don't exactly know what outcome would most likely occur down the road. Nobody really does. The only thing I know for sure is that our kids should be our priority.

When the friends with the dog left, and the young mom uttered a half-hearted goodbye while she was wrapping up her baby (again without looking up), I shrugged and dismissed most of my ‘judging’ thoughts. I thought too much attention is probably better than too little. But when they left and I found myself still thinking, it dawned on me that they didn’t even really look at each other the entire time. They talked to each other without taking their eyes off their baby.

I wondered what their short adult relationship may have been like before the baby. Then of course my mind wandered further down that made-up mental path and I wondered what it would be like if we all treated our important adult relationships like these two treated their new child. What if we were unconditionally and undistractedly attentive to our partner, brother, sister, mother, father and best friend? Would it be too much?
I think so. But perhaps some of this ‘over’ attention might just be a better thing than what seems to be more of the norm today. I see many, many adults sitting at tables not talking, not looking, not paying attention to each other. Especially the older couples. I see young friends talking but looking around or texting at the same time. This relationship dynamic is probably here to stay with all the distraction available to us during practically every awaking minute. I can live with this (although not my preference) as long as we connect to our children with true and genuine focus, at the very least.

Again, I was a little bit uplifted when I witnessed the ‘over’ attention of these two young people and their baby, but it was compelling for me to consider what our adult relationships would be like if we gave them even a part of the attention expressed by table across the sidewalk. I think we can and should treat our relationships more like our children. We should shower attention on them often (not constantly) and not just when dramatic or ‘heavy’ events are occurring. Why not pay attention to the person across the table just for the sake of it? Certainly bonding would be stronger, connection would be deeper, and opportunities to truly support or help would be revealed. What is the downside in this? Maybe the perceived downside is that it takes too much energy and focus, something most believe is in short or limited supply and therefore should be reserved for either our children or only serious situations.

Personally, I don’t believe it. I think most of us have more energy and focus capacity than we express.  What draws this energy out is another issue all together. I think friendships, direct relationships, and critical adult connections deserve and warrant our specific and undistracted attention in more regular and ordinary interactions. If this deeper and more nourishing energy doesn't get pulled out of us for some important reason or another, then we need to give it, if just for the sake of giving, much like we do with our children. Whats to lose really?

I also believe that the more we exercise this effort of ‘giving’ our attention in the form of energy and focus, the more we build capacity, like building a muscle in our body. We certainly build our ‘child attention’ muscle by using it. Most parents find being a parent easier and their energy more accessible with their second and third children. Why? Because their capacity grew with use and exercise.

I’m sure the majority of new parents wonder how in the world they will find enough energy, focus, and attention to adequately take care of a child. Yet they do it and most do it very well. After exercising this capacity with the first child it strengthens and generally successive children are not as hard. Our children still take extraordinary amounts of time but for many parents it does seem to be easier the second and third time around.

I believe this can happen as well with our adult relationships. If we exercise our capacity to focus and pay attention, it will grow and the relationship will grow, just like our children. Our adult relationships do not and should not have the same unconditional priority and commitment as our children. I think we can take some of the good practices that develop and grow within the dynamic child/parent exchange and apply them to our more meaningful adult relationships. Really....what’s to lose? 

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