Last week my wife, Mia, went on a reunion binge, traveling to the East Coast for her reunions for undergrad and graduate schools. Accordingly, I got the kids for Memorial Day Weekend and the week thereafter.
I took the challenge of taking 4-year-old Renzo and 2-year-old Massimo on the 5+ hour drive to Mammoth – solo! People thought I was crazy. But the weekend turned out to be full of less obvious parenting epiphanies. My main insight: I realized that while I spend a lot of time around the kids, I spend very little time truly playing with them.
As the early riser with a shorter commute, I generally take morning duty with the little guys, squeezing in a little yoga while I supervise play time, make them breakfast, get them dressed, take them to school, etc. At Mammoth, it’s our morning routine on steroids. After feeding them and cleaning up breakfast; gearing them up; shuttling us to the lifts; running cover for Renzo through the ski park with Massi on my back in a pack; eating lunch; walking the dog; and getting Massi down for his nap; I made it to the floor for some stretching and maybe a little shuteye with Renzo by my side.
Just after I collapsed on the floor next to his pile of Legos, crayon drawings and paper airplanes, Renzo asked, “Daddy, will you play with me?” I replied, “I have been playing with you all day!” And of course, he replied, “No you haven’t. You never play with me!”
I thought, “Is that possibly true?” I am with him a lot, but do I play with him or play around him? It was then that I noticed it is really the latter rather than the former. WOW! What a loser I have been!
I thought that I was doing such an amazing job as a parent with all the work I had been putting into it. Then I realized that my son was almost 5 years old, and I had done very little pure playing with him. We have skied, ridden bikes, gone on hikes, climbed rocks, taken trips, eaten most dinners together, read books. All great stuff, but most of our time together has really been me doing stuff near him; instructing him or, worse, lecturing him about why to do this and not to do that. There is usually a very utilitarian aspect to the activity or at least my involvement therein. This was a huge wakeup call.
At that juncture, I immediately put away all of the to-do lists and spent the rest of the weekend playing i.e. building Legos with him, not for him or while near him. I wrote off all the plans I had to meet up with friends and do this or that and just did what they wanted to do, bringing myself to their level and truly listening to them. I was able to almost entirely quit the multi-tasking and found a wonderful new world of joy as a parent, discovering and laughing with them rather than teaching at and playing around them. It was awesome!
Now I am at the second part of my wife’s reunion extravaganza (the business school one). I hopped on a plane with the kids to rendezvous with Mia in Boston. At this reunion, the professors offer lectures to returning alumni (and spouses). Subjects go beyond the expected How to Kill Your Next Leveraged Buyout. In fact, there are softer issues taught including Why Does Your Teenager Hate You? and Why You Got Divorced…Again! Clay Christenson, a legendary professor of strategy, challenged the audience, “Why do we implement strategies to effect outcomes we don’t want – in business and, even more importantly, at home?!“
He commented on how many returning alumni report back on their illustrious successes in business but also tragic realities at home, i.e. the hate-filled breakups, the shallow relationships with old friends and children, failing health, etc. Nobody leaves business school with a plan to create a crappy marriage but then again very few apply the same rigorous strategic planning process to the home that they do to the next product launch or merger or pilot script. Why?
As I think about applying professor Christenson’s teachings to my own realization with my kids at Mammoth, I think about the importance of applying the same diligence to relationships at work as to relationships at home. At the office, I have received great fulfillment from my work with clients. I have been able to focus wholeheartedly on solving investment and other planning problems, but I succeed because of empathy in understanding the root of people’s financial and other challenges. Now I know the same generosity needs to be applied to my kids if I am to enjoy the real fruits of parenthood.
There are no shortcuts to listening. Playing is not something you do with one ear or one arm while on the phone, cooking, catching up on email, etc. When you play, it is not from above either. Only when you get eye-to-eye with your kid(s) can you really connect. And if you do not connect with them through play, I think you miss out. Strategy for real connection through real play – that’s what I needed!