Parenting in Space and Time

Author’s Note: My 8-year-old thinks the title of this post sounds like a Dr. Who episode. Since I have never successfully watched a Dr. Who episode all the way through, and since what little I have seen of it always leaves me very confused, I can safely say that any resemblances between what I say here and the events, characters, and storylines of Dr. Who episodes are purely and completely coincidental.

Recently, we took a family trip to the beach. It was a public holiday, and my husband wanted to Do Something on his day off.

Family trips to the beach are good.   They are also stressful, at least for me. And this particular trip was especially stressful. I didn’t have the day off work, so we decided I would meet the family on the beach after I had finished at the university for the day. After an intense set of philosophy lectures, with lots of work still to be done for my next lectures, I set off to find the family. My husband had decided to go to a beach that I had never visited, and I got lost getting there. After driving around for ages, I finally found them. But I was in no mood to be at the beach.

I sat down in a beach chair and tried to convince myself that the outing was a good idea. My youngest had just been in the water, and I noticed she was shivering. So I put a towel around her and hugged her while she sat on my lap to warm her up.

We just sat there, the two of us. I rested my cheek on her sandy hair, and she snuggled against my body. We watched the ocean and listened to the waves. As the time passed, I started to feel a closeness to this child that I hadn’t felt for a while. It felt good and relaxing, like I was returning to something important that I had left – a kind of quiet homecoming.

As I noticed that feeling, I also suddenly realized that I had spent very little time with her recently. Now, that seemed odd to me, because I am around her much of the time. But I as thought about it, I noted that although we had been around one another, I hadn’t really spent much time interacting with her. For instance, when I would make dinner, she would play in her room. When I would work on my lectures, she would watch TV. When I would help my older children with something, she would slip out to the backyard to play. The result was that I had actually seen very little of her lately, due to our very busy lives.

And now, just the simple act of sitting together was making a significant difference to our relationship.   And yet, if I was to be more precise, it was more than the act of sitting together. It was more than the physical closeness that was strengthening our relationship. It was the act of sitting together for a period of time that was bringing us closer together. We didn’t have any distractions. I wasn’t on my phone, she wasn’t on an ipad. For a space of time, we were focused on each other.

Parenting and the Nature of Time

As I reflect on this experience, I am struck that there is something to learn here about the nature of time in relation to parenting. Of course, we’ve all heard the commonplace truth about how parents need to spend time with their kids. Yet, as a parent, I do not always feel that advice is helpful. You see, time is not my friend. I’m always rushing against the clock for something: school runs, deadlines, dinnertime, homework, sports, clubs, activities, etc. I feel like there’s not much I can do about my lack of time, but I berate myself just the same for not managing it better. From a parenting perspective, time is my constantly judgmental, constantly stingy companion.

Yet, if I turn to philosophy to think about the concept of time, there are some profound insights there that have enabled me to see my time challenges in a different light. In essence, time is a fundamental aspect of our human existence. This fact defines not only defines how we move, and how we think, it also defines how our relationships are formed. Time is the medium in which human beings build connections with each other. It therefore follows that parenting human beings will take time. The human condition is such that there is just no other way. Once these stark truths are digested, it seems quite beside the point to look at time as my enemy or my judge. It is, simply, my most important resource.

Philosophical Perspectives on Time, Space and Mind

Since the earliest days of philosophy, thinkers have always been fascinated with time. The study of time often goes hand in hand with a study of space and matter. Matter exists in space, and moves in space. Movement also takes place in time, so matter exists in, and is bound by, space and time. Since our bodies are material entities, we, as human beings, also exist in space and time.

However, as human beings, we consist of more than just our bodies. We also have our minds. Now, when philosophers talk about the mind, they do not mean the brain. They mean one’s thoughts, and one’s feelings and desires. The brain is the physical entity that somehow facilitates thoughts and desires. The mind, however, is not physical. Our thoughts and desires themselves do not take up space.

Yet, although the mind is not physical, and therefore does not exist in space, it still exists in time. That is, our thoughts and desires do not take up space, but they do take up time. According to the early Christian philosopher St. Augustine, our thoughts form a kind of trajectory through time, as we go from one thought to the next. We are at one moment ‘now willing, now not willing; now knowing, now not knowing, now remembering, now not remembering, now forgetting, now fearing, now daring, now advancing towards wisdom, now declining into folly.’

Giving Children Your Thoughts, and Your Time

Now, this all may sound rather abstract. But I would argue that the concept of our thoughts existing in time has some profound practical consequences, especially with regards to parenting. Consider this: our thoughts do not pertain solely to ourselves. Our thoughts happen within our minds, but they affect those around us. Our thoughts determine how we interact with others, both our physical interactions, and our mental interactions. And it is our interactions with others which create our relationships with them. Human relationships, then, are based upon countless sequences of thoughts, which always take place in time.

Understanding time in this way has, for me, made spending time with my children at once less pressured, but also, more profound. Since exchanges of thought take place in time, and family relationships are built upon those exchanges, then our time must be the most important thing we can give our children. Perhaps, really, it is the only thing we can give them. And if that is true, then surely the act of spending time together is just as important as what is done during that time together. This is what I mean by a less pressured approach to parenting. I’m learning to see my children more as creatures to be listened to, hugged, enjoyed and marveled at, rather than as creatures to be herded, pushed, chauffeured, and frustrated with. I’ve become more interested in bedtime stories, nature hikes, spontaneous conversations and ice cream trips, than in ballet lessons, regional orchestra auditions or GPA’s. I’m learning to worry less about getting through a ‘to-do’ list, and instead valuing the interaction in the moment, because I understand now that each moment really does count. Indeed, I am starting to see interacting in the moment as the ‘to-do’ list.

When I say giving our children our time, I mean our thoughtful time. We do not give them our time if we merely exist next to them physically, in space, without much mental interaction. I feel the need to point out the obvious fact that our generation faces special obstacles to achieving this. The constant access of online activity means that it has never been easier to disengage mentally with those around us. Yet, my experience is that spending time with our children really only occurs when we focus on them with our thoughts.

I’m reminded of the time several years ago when I went to a parent’s morning at my son’s preschool. Parents were invited to spend an hour or so with their children, doing whatever the child wanted to do. I still remember how excited my son was to show me around. We looked together at his work, and at his favorite dinosaur books. We did his favorite puzzles together. There were no distractions –there were no escape routes for me, either physically, or mentally. He was incandescently happy to have me as a captive audience, and his happiness filled me in a way that pushed out all my cares and worries. It was one of those moments of pure joy. And really, all I did was show up. It didn’t really matter what we did once I was there. The point is that I gave him my attention – that is, I gave him my mind, and that could only be done by giving him my time. The result was a happy child, and a happy mommy.

Parenting and Truths About Time, Space and the Human Condition

A few weeks ago we saw a student art show at my daughter’s school. I came across an impressive picture of what seemed to be a vast expanse of space. At the bottom it read: ‘All that exists are atoms and space. Everything else is opinion.’ The philosopher in me smiled at the approach, but as a parent I had to dissent. Although many eminent philosophers would agree with this student’s sentiment, it strikes me as a rather indulgent way of looking at the human condition.

Yes, the material conditions of the universe seem to be obviously true, whereas ideas about how human beings should be, and how they should act, seem to be less obviously true. But the conditions of space and matter – and therefore time – make certain things true about us as human beings. Since human beings exist in space and time, human relationships can only be developed by using time.

This is not merely an opinion. This is a truth that bears directly on what is involved in raising happy human beings. Parenting requires thought, which requires time. My suggestion is to embrace this truth, and recognize the value in every moment that you have together.