At dinner before a recent event, I asked one of my buddies about his goals for the next morning. "What is your plan? What will be your time per mile for the first five miles? How many minutes will you have in the bank for the inevitable slow down at mile 20? What do you think your time per mile be for the last six miles?" He stared at me blankly. "When the gun goes off, I'll start running," he said. "When I cross the finish line, I'll stop." After the race, I asked about his splits. "What was your time at the halfway mark? What was your average time for each five mile interval?" Again, he just stared. Then he started talking about the people whom he had met during the race, their conversations and insights. He described the architecture of buildings along the course. He talked about the race organization, the design of the finishers medal, the food. He mentioned some of the corporations who had contributed to the event.
I have run more marathons than any rational person would care to admit. I cannot name one underwriter or supporter of any race ever. Not one. I don't know. I don't care. My buddy on the other hand is sensitive to the organizational issues. My buddy and I may have been on the same course in the same race on the same day, but we may as well have been living centuries apart in different cultures on opposite sides of the world.
We were not attending to the same stimuli. What is important to me has no bearing on his experience. What is of interest to him does not connect with me. For me, a marathon is about data, numbers, performance, time per mile. For my buddy, a distance event is about experience, conversation, connection. My friend is intrigued by architecture and city planning for goodness sake. Architecture. Really? There were buildings along the course? Good to know. I am much too focused on calculating my time per mile and whether or not I am on pace to achieve my goal time. Unless a building can help me divide three hours and 55 minutes by 26.2 miles, I have no interest.
Next thing you know, he'll be telling me what kind of running shorts people are wearing. Who the heck knows or cares what the other runners are wearing?
My point this week is not to pontificate about how to enjoy a marathon. Indeed, if there is one thing on which my buddy and I can agree, it is that "enjoy" and "marathon" are two words that are seldom found together in the same sentence. What is of interest is how two people - - you and your child for example - - can be in the same room at the same time listening to the same conversation and have completely different subjective experiences.
Consider an open calculus book. A math professor might look at a page of problems and think about how to improve her teaching technique. One student might look at the same page and wonder which problems to review to ensure a perfect score on an upcoming test. Another student considering that same page might wonder if he had enough money in his bank account to afford a one-way ticket to a country with no extradition treaty.
The archetypal example of "what you said is not what I heard" has to be "Did you do your homework?" Parents might wish to communicate, "The future is uncertain and I want you to be prepared." But a child might hear, "My parents are more concerned with my performance than they are with what I am able to do."
The marathon course, the calculus book, and the conversation all exist in the real world. If my buddy and I had cameras attached to our foreheads while we ran, both devices would record the same experience. But his memory would be filled with the dialogue and design while I would remember that mile 17 was 15 seconds faster than mile 16 and didn't that lead to an unpleasant mile 18.
Half a heartbeat from now, your children will be grown and gone. What will your children remember from your interactions and conversations? It is in your interest to attend to the same stimuli, to know what they are hearing, and, to the best of your ability, be on the same course with them perceiving the same things as you run along. The alternative--not being attuned to what your children think and feel--leads to outcomes even worse than running mile 17 at 15 seconds per mile faster than mile 16!