11/03/2014 06:21 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Big Deals in Disguise

Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images

At the end of the day, what we all really want is to be taken seriously. Few things are more hurtful than being dismissed, scorned or patronized. We want to know that what we think and do interests those we love. This is true for kids as well as adults.

A friend told me a story about another mother we both know and admire. At a large family reunion in a crowd of adults milling around socializing, her young son wanted to tell a joke he had been practicing. His mom was deep in conversation with my friend when she noticed her son standing on a stone bench ready to speak. "Excuse me," she said, halting their conversation. "I really want to listen to this." After her son had delivered his joke to an appreciative audience, he looked to make sure his mother had heard. When he saw she had, he beamed.

It was a moment -- "just a moment," some might argue. Not a big deal.

But childhood is made up of such everyday moments. Small achievements. Small hurdles overcome. Yet, these smaller "moments," when looked at through a child's lens, aren't small at all. An essential skill of thoughtful parenting is recognizing that these moments are big deals in disguise.

We're better at making a fuss over what is commonly thought of as a "big deal" -- an excellent report card, a sports trophy or a great piano recital. But I'd argue that the small successes are often more important -- those brief interactions when empathy, understanding or appreciation flash between adult and child. When we intentionally make ourselves present to celebrate the small successes and to listen to our children's concerns and questions, we send an important message. We are saying, "I care about you. I am interested in what you say and think. You matter to me."

At Highlights, we work to have an authentic dialogue with children. Toward that end, we answer every letter and email we receive from our readers, tens of thousands a year. Some of these letters and emails include submissions to the magazine -- jokes, tongue twisters and original drawings or poems. But many of them are from children who want advice, who share their hopes and dreams, their worries and fears. The topics can be serious, from what to do when parents fight to how to deal with bullies. But the majority of questions kids ask us are on lighter subjects -- still every bit as important to them. Surprisingly, these letters are often more challenging to answer.

"I hate the feel of lotion on my hands. What can I do?"

"I love lizards. I try to catch them so I can play with them and dress them up. My mother says I need to leave them in nature. Can you help me?"

"I can't get my guinea pigs to play with toys. What should I do?"

"I love my favorite TV character as if he's real. But he's a penguin! Is this normal?"

We may think these questions are humorous or simply small potatoes. But to the kids who pose these questions, they are not. They want answers, and although they can't articulate it, they are asking for a moment of genuine engagement. These opportunities to truly connect are easily missed or brushed off. But they are the building blocks of childhood that, over time, form kids who are curious, confident, creative, and caring.

When we lean in and answer their "silly" questions seriously, we increase the likelihood that they will come to us later to ask for help with the high-stakes problems. When we stop everything and listen to our child because we realize that the "moment" is not about a kid trying to be funny or call attention to himself but, rather, it's about his developing self-confidence, the more self-assured and less timid he'll be.

Small moments disguised as big deals. All the more reason for us parents to work harder at "living in the moment."