08/11/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Mommy, Are You Paying Attention?'

"Mommy, are you paying attention?" my daughter asked.

We were in the car at a particularly long red light, and I had pulled out my phone to check my email. The light turned green, and my daughter noticed it before I did.


"No, I wasn't paying attention," I answered, putting down my phone. "But I should be."

Her question gave me serious pause. It just sounded so wise coming from her. Maybe it was the exact phrasing of what she said. Not "Mommy, the light is green!" Not "Mommy, it's your turn!" But Mommy, are you paying attention?

Yes, even mothers who write about mindful parenting get called out by their children for not being very mindful! I think it's the reason Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn call children our "live-in Zen masters."

And here's one thing my little Zen master has taught me: to find more of those little moments when I can pay attention. One of my colleagues once told me that she had some of her best conversations with her children while in the car -- they're a captive audience in the car with us! We can have tough conversations, and breaking, or not even attempting, eye-contact is perfectly acceptable.

But I wasn't paying attention. I had been checking my email. I'm sure I'd been chatting with my daughter before we'd stopped, but likely in a conversation peppered with "Uh-huh"s as opposed to genuine engagement as I drove, literally, on auto-pilot.

My daughter's question made me think of something I had read in Real Simple a while ago. The question posed to readers in that issue was "What is the best compliment you've ever received?" One mother wrote the following:

"I'll never forget what my eldest daughter told me when she was eight. The two of us were driving home from a day at the lake when she said, "Mom, you're not like the other mothers. When I'm in the water and I say, 'Watch me do this trick!' you really watch. The other moms just say, 'That's nice,' and don't even look."

How often had I been one of those "other mothers"? As soon as we walk in the door from work and school, I have dishes to clean up and papers to grade and dinner to make and homework to supervise and dance lessons to drive to... and before I know it, it's time for baths and bedtime. I feel so rushed, and I wonder how often I am truly paying attention.

Yes, there are important tasks that need to get done. And making time for ourselves is important. But what do we miss by not paying attention? We miss the now. And that's pretty much everything...

I'm certainly not saying our children need our attention all the time. They need to learn how to play and think creatively and explore the world away from our hovering attention. We need time for our own self-care and renewal. But if, as John Tarrant tells us, "attention is the most basic form of love," we can certainly find those small moments when the thing our children most want from us is the easiest thing to give them.

So after getting busted on my lack of mindfulness by my daughter, I vowed the next day to pay attention. On our short drive to work and school, my phone remained tucked away in my purse. I pushed away the thoughts about work and my to-do list, and focused on my children. My daughter talked about the school buses she saw and how much she likes riding the bus. My son saw looked at the evergreen tree on the corner across from school and exclaimed, "Mommy, that is the biggest Christmas tree ever!"

It wasn't magical, we didn't have epiphanies, or discover insights into each other's souls; it wasn't deep or profound. But isn't that what most of life is? Our lives are made up of these small moments, filled with the mundane and the routines of living. And on that morning drive with my children, we were paying attention to all of it, and to each other.

On second thought, maybe it was magical.

A version of this post originally appeared on Sarah's blog Left Brain Buddha. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.