The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Notice what our kids are trying to tell us

(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

We have a running joke in our family that my son will notice anything new in our house before my husband does. It has almost become a game, so much so that Nicholas, my seven-year-old, will stop before launching a football across our living room and ask if that’s a new picture hanging on the wall. (It isn’t, but I still appreciate his effort).

My husband, on the other hand, has been known to walk across a “new” doormat for three months before finally glancing down and remarking, “Hey! Is this a new doormat? Very nice.” Nicholas and I look at each other, roll our eyes, and break into giggles.

Whether our flowers need watering or a new wreath hangs on the door, it is my son who sees it first. I’d like to think he has some sort of aesthetic appreciation for the world around him, but I suspect he just knows that he’ll get a happy reaction from his mom. That I’ll tell him he has “sharp eyes.”

There are, of course, all kinds of “noticing” and an abundance of “notices” in the world.  Some less beneficial for the soul than others. There are library notices for overdue books and school notices for fundraisers. Notices for the latest political candidates stuffed in your mailbox. If you “give notice,” chances are you’re leaving your job.

But consider the word notice as the American Heritage Dictionary III defines it: Notice is “respectful attention or consideration.” That’s a whole other ball of wax, full of potential and possibility. Think about it: not only stopping to see the world but also lending it your respectful attention and consideration.

Consider how a dreary day can brighten simply by taking a walk, the fallen leaves crackling beneath your feet. Or, how the sudden chill of a fall night can be softened by a harvest moon, blazoning on the horizon. How the drudgery of a work day can be split open, like an atom, with the few minutes it takes to enjoy the muted golds of the marsh grasses on a drive home.

The old Zen practice of living in the moment is what our children keep reminding us. For a few minutes, they urge us with their seemingly small requests to do something bigger: put away our cell phones, not just out of reach but out of sight.

Take a moment, they seem to say, to appreciate the maple tree that has burst into radiant color outside your window, or the abandoned bird’s nest that your family discovered while raking leaves. Consider the bright sunlight that splashes across your kitchen counter while your morning coffee brews. Give respectful attention to your child when he asks you to look at his drawings, his stories, his play-acting.

When my son was just a baby, I used to wheel him around the neighborhood and point out everything that I could. I’d read the parenting books; I knew that attaching labels to objects was an important step in building a child’s vocabulary. So, I’d chatter on, pointing to a tree, a squirrel, the bright, blue sky. Take it all in, I wanted to tell him on the most gorgeous fall days. This is as good as the world gets.

But lately, I find the tables have turned, and it’s most often the other way around, my son reminding his father and me to take it all in, to stop for a moment. To slow down and give life its due, give it our respectful attention and appreciation.

“Did you notice how it’s getting darker sooner?” Nicholas asked me one night driving home from hockey practice. When we climbed out of the car, the musky, sweet scent of a neighbor’s fire hung in the air. “I think someone’s having a fire,” he said. “Can we?” Another day he asked if I’d noticed that the ivy on the gate across the street was turning red (I had but had forgotten about it).

But this morning, he got me. We opened up the front door to an unseasonably warm fall day, the turning trees around our house vivid with color. I was looking up and out, but Nicholas was looking down. Overnight, in the recent winds and rains, an entire flock of maple leaves, brilliant red and gold-tipped, had landed in our driveway. They lay jumbled across the pavement in wild abandon, like an Expressionist painting. Nicholas grinned at me. “Wow! I never noticed these leaves before, did you?” His voice was filled with wonder but also with a hint of challenge, I thought. Had he spied them before I had, his big, brown eyes seemed to ask?

“No, I didn’t notice,” I said gently. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

As we made our way to the car, a gust of wind whipped up the leaves. Like tiny acrobats, they cartwheeled away, just as swiftly and as surely as they had come.

Wendy Francis is a former book editor and an author (The Summer of Good Intentions and Three Good Things, 2013). She’s on Facebook and on Twitter at @wendyfrancis4.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can find us at and sign up for our newsletter here.

You might also be interested in:

Trying to like hiking for my child’s sake

10 ways to get kids into nature and why it matters

How I learned to be a more mindful parent

Teaching kids and parents the art of mindfulness