“I can’t. I don’t have …” vs. “I won’t. I don’t want …”

The progeny regularly ask for attention at inconvenient times—typically when we are all running late for something or when I have just started a project. I am convinced they have devised a game in which they earn points proportional to some inconvenience factor. I imagine a rule in this game explains:

Earn extra points:
+1 for asking as dad is heading out the door for any reason.
+3 for asking as dad heads into the garage to get tools to work on something.
+5 for asking as dad returns from garage with hands full of tools.
+7 for asking just after dad has stuck his head in some hard-to-reach spot, e.g., climbed under the sink to repair it.
+100 for asking when dad has finally got a wrench or other mission-critical tool in just the right spot and is with his other hand holding some piece above his head while holding the flashlight in his mouth so he can see what he is doing, and he seems, if he’s lucky, to be on the verge of finishing the job that should have taken 30 minutes but has consumed the entire afternoon and has required two trips to the hardware store for parts.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I suspect (or perhaps just hope) that my experience is not unique, that #1 and #2 aren’t punishing me for some past-life crime I committed. In any case, The Mother and I say with some regularity: “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.”

How often when we say “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” do we really mean “I won’t right now. I don’t want to take the time.”? We (or at least I) could do a better job distinguishing between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to”?

I was reminded of this at 7:45 AM the other morning when #1 was excited about the sprawling network of tunnels the ants in his ant farm had dug (it was really neat, as was the inexplicably bisected ant whose head and trunk lay discarded on the surface while his fellow ants climbed over his metasoma at the bottom of a tunnel). His “Mommy. Mommy. Come look at the ants’ tunnels.” was answered with the standard “I can’t. I don’t have the time.”

The Mother’s response was justified and understandable. Mornings are hectic. Getting everybody ready and out the door takes concentration and focus. Equally justified, however, was #1’s comment: “You always say that.”

Arguments for not dropping everything to fawn over progeny are easy to construct. We are not being selfish if we want the occasional time to ourselves. We are probably better parents and certainly happier parents if we have some “me time.” They are not neglected if they do not get our undivided attention all the time on their schedule and according to their whim. They might learn to moderate their requests and learn to ask for attention when it’s convenient for everybody. But we might also ask ourselves: Are we really too busy? Could we take a minute and look at some ant tunnels? Is our current task time-sensitive or will it wait? Do we need to finish reading that article or do we just really really want some time to ourselves? Maybe. But either way we should be clear and honest with ourselves and our progeny.

When our instinctive reply is “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” we risk obscuring the difference between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to.” We also risk confusing the progeny.