At this time of the year, with schools closing for the summer, kids are honored for their achievements. They may be the best musician or mathematician or the most likely to succeed. One award stands out: perfect attendance. Every class has one or two boys or girls who showed up every day for the whole school year. In high school, there could be one who was marked present on every roll since kindergarten. He or she was at a desk every single solitary day and deserves a prize.
A person may have perfect attendance at school, work, church or play. There are season ticket holders who have not missed a game in years. One relative skipped a birthday party for his brother-in-law in order to be at the kickoff of a college football game. It was the last birthday party the man ever had.
There should be awards for attendance at home and family events. What parent would be the winner? What is the parental record for attending kids’ activities? Do Mom and Dad have their names down for every parent-teacher conference?
Then there is the problem of attending without being there. Teachers could spend hours talking about that. Pupils come to class like learning zombies. The lights are on, but no one is home. The students don’t participate. They sit. They occupy a seat. Their bodies are in the room, but their brains never came through the door.
Learning is the victim of this simultaneous presence and absence. The other casualty of present-but-absent is emotional growth. Zeynep Biringen, a professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State, teaches the importance of “emotional availability.” It is not only being in the room with your body and brain; a parent must answer “here” on the roll call of feelings.
Child developmentalists like the term “serve and return.” This means that when a child serves or transmits an emotional or other signal of engagement, the parent or caregiver recognizes the communication and then “returns” the gaze, sound or gesture but also adds his or her own spin. The child then hits back the parents’ reaction with one of his or her own. But you cannot play if you are not in the game.
If there is not emotional attendance, the result is neglect as damaging as an absence of food.
To have perfect emotional attendance, a person has to be aware of his or her absence.
It is easy to measure school attendance. It is tougher to identify emotional presence. The fact that a parent is in the room doesn’t count. Parents have to be communicating with empathy in addition to looks, touches and words. They have to react to their child’s signals. Action alone doesn’t count. Doing all the right external acts of love is insufficient.
The behavior has to be a connection between two souls. It is called attunement. It is heart-to-heart communication. The toughest part is when parents think that being in the room counts as enough. It is hard to convince them otherwise if that is all they know. Emotional absence is learned during infancy. Therefore, they perpetuate the learned ignorance of their childhood. The great news is that the willing student-parent can learn emotional availability.
It comes through forgetting themselves and focusing on others. It demands pushing away hurry. It is listening without distractions. It places the other person first. The world stops spinning inside the room while it continues its merry rotations outside. The only object of importance becomes the other person. This requires abandoning control.
Emotional unavailability sometimes shows itself as showmanship. Vulnerability demands stifling cleverness. Parents need to be present in the room and not up on some stage of their own making.
School attendance should be recognized, but emotional attendance should be rewarded, cheered, applauded, championed, encouraged, taught, imitated, promoted, acknowledged, praised and practiced.
Be there. Be present.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org