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Minute Magic: Ditch Multitasking for Better Parenting

"Being curious in a 'single-tasking' moment makes children feel cared for, supported, and loved."

Mary Willcox Smith, The MicroStep Method™ for the Overwhelmed Parent

The benefits of multitasking are a powerful but deceptive illusion! Combined with the fact that mothers are the most time-starved creatures on earth, this illusion creates a recipe for disaster.

It’s an all-too-familiar evening scene: I’m at the stove stirring dinner with a long-enough wooden spoon to lean over and correct the eldest’s spelling homework. Meanwhile, the second needs medicine for her nebulizer, and the two youngest are in the other room, yelling for me to join the tea party. Oh, and I’ve surreptitiously checked my phone. Twice.

I hasten to mention that multitasking is endemic to the species, but not something that we would necessarily choose to do, if given a choice. (I feel so vindicated when I say that.)

We need our prefrontal cortex to focus, but it craves novelty. Opioids flood the brain, and we are, in effect, rewarded for indulging in distractions and losing focus.

mom and kids multitasking

Alas, our brain is not designed to switch between tasks, so even though we think we can text, make a shopping list, and pay careful or even helpful attention to our children, we can’t. Well, we can try, but something is going to give. And it’s often the quality of our attention.

Make a Moment

It’s tempting, and sometimes necessary, to brush off our children’s musings and problems, especially if we’ve had a bad day, or if we’re busy (which, unfortunately, seems close to “always”).

Rather than . . .

  • “Just a minute, I need to answer this text.”

  • “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm . . . can’t you just find another toy to play with?”

  • “Oh, hi. Why don’t you grab a snack? I’ll be down in a bit.”

Enter your favorite timing device—a proven external support for our monkey brains. Stop doing the dishes, put down the phone, or turn your chair away from your computer, and press go. Bite your tongue, turn toward your child, drop your shoulders (to remove the stress and overwhelm from your body), and use your “I am really curious” parenting method for a full minute, until the timer goes off. (One mom I know uses Alexa!)

Try . . .

  • “Oh, I see, and what made you choose purple for the color of the dog?” And then there are plenty more questions you may have about that artwork and its themes and composition during the rest of that minute.

  • “They made you run how many times up and down the field at soccer?!” In the remaining seconds, you can find out much more about the practice and what your child thought and felt about it.

  • “Wow, they did give you a lot of homework. What do you think homework rules should be?” That can take a minute, for sure!

And then wrap it up with:

  • “Thanks for sharing.”

  • “I’d love to hear more of your thoughts if you’d like to talk about it later.”

  • “I’m going to finish up fixing dinner now. Would you like to sit here with me while I do that?”

Why It Works

Focusing attention takes more than channeling brainpower toward a single goal; it also involves blocking everything else the brain is using to seduce you. (A timer helps simply because your brain knows it can get back to multitasking when you’re finished. I’m not being facetious—the brain likes knowing there’s an end in sight.)

Further, when we add in genuine curiosity, we’re more likely to listen attentively and engage with them.

Rather than mm-hmm’ing mindlessly, even a short burst of focus helps us to slow down and recognize what they need (being heard, a little praise, interest, a sounding board).

Finally, believe it or not, once we have a proven track record of curiosity and closing our mouths, our kids will be far more likely to turn to us with problems that really matter—as well as their hopes and dreams.

What if your children notice the timer? Don’t sweat it. Explain that they are really important to you, and you want to be sure that you hear every word they’re saying. (Now you are modeling, too.)

It’s actually kind of relaxing. Try it! Instead of “Just a minute,” try “Here’s a minute.” Being curious in a “single-tasking” moment makes children feel cared for, supported, and loved.

Like what you're reading? Download a free chapter of my book,

MicroStep Method for the Overwhelmed Parent: Small Moments, Big Impact.


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