There are many ways to show love. Some people do it with food and gifts. But one of the most important ways is to take the time to show interest in other people’s needs, feelings and thoughts. In our busy society, “eye time” and “ear time” are a rarity.

It is estimated that we are “not present” about 45 percent of our waking hours, especially when we are overwhelmed, exhausted and frazzled. When needed, the brain takes its own little breaks and shuts down temporarily, whether we like it or not. During those breaks, we are inattentive and unresponsive—“spaced out.”

Children are extraordinarily attuned to whether their parents are emotionally connected or disconnected. They often feel rejected or abandoned if parents are tuned out too much of the time. To help parents be more “present” and tuned in to their children’s needs and feelings, I created a little two-sided ruler. One side shows varying degrees of happy faces and a Children are extraordinarily attuned to their parentshappiness scale from 1–10. The other side shows varying degrees of pain, also from 1–10. You can also use an ordinary 12-inch or 10-centimeter ruler.

I got my children used to sharing their feelings by showing the ruler to them when they were upset and asking, “How painful was that incident?” At dinner, I asked each one, “Tell me about something that made you happy and something that made you sad.” I’d say, “My back hurts 10, so I need your help.” (I tried not to cry wolf!) Or, “I’m exhausted 9, but I’ll push myself to help you.” I once asked my three-year-old how he felt about the new baby. He looked thoughtfully at the ruler and said, “I’m happy 10 to have another brother, but was I sad 10 when you were away in the hospital.”

I carry these rulers in my purse and often use them with strangers. For example, a few days ago, as I entered my eye doctor’s office, I saw a little girl who was whining and poking her parents to get their attention. Her highly pregnant mother was staring at the wall and not responding, while her father was out in cyberspace with his electronic device. To the child, both parents had disappeared into a black hole somewhere. Although their bodies were there, they were as unresponsive as mannequins.

I pulled out my ruler and asked if she wanted to see something interesting. She came over to me hesitantly, and I pointed to a small cut on my hand. Showing her the ruler, I said, “This ruler measures pain. See, here at 10 is the most pain, and we need to call an ambulance or go to the hospital.” I asked her where she thought the cut on my hand rated. She pointed to the 4. “Wow,” I responded, “You are so intelligent. You knew exactly how to rate it!” (Even though it was only a 1 for me, I wanted her to feel good about her answer.) Then I asked if she had any boo-boos. She pointed to her knee, which had a big scrape on it. I asked her how big the pain was when it happened. She pointed to the 6. When I asked, “And how bad is the pain now?” she pointed to the 1.

I got the mother’s attention and asked how old her daughter was. When she said, “Three and a half,” I praised her daughter: “She’s so intelligent for her age. She is able to correctly assess her pain and mine! This is amazing for such a young child.”

I then gave the child a ruler and told her to ask her to ask her mother, “How tired are you?” Taking a quick look, the mother said, “Ten!” The child and I sympathized with her. I then told her to ask her father how tired he was. He said, “Nine!” I talked with the child for a few more minutes about all kinds of painful and happy things. She was thrilled that I showed interest in her inner world. As the secretary called me to see the doctor, I handed the The child and I sympathized with herruler to the mother and told her that I hoped she would use it.

The next day, when I took my grandchildren out for pizza, I heard a four-year-old boy scream as he got his hand caught in the bathroom door. He was crying quite pitifully as the mother washed off his hand in the sink. When I could see that his tears were lessening, out came my ruler, and I asked him how painful it was, with 10 being the most painful. He pointed to the 10. I acknowledged the pain and said what a brave little boy he was. Half an hour later, as he was finishing up his pizza, I walked over to his table with my grandchildren in tow and took out my ruler once more, asking him how bad the pain was now. He looked up happily and said, “One!” I hope my grandchildren and the other family will remember how happy it makes people to express their feelings and feel accepted and important to someone.

Another time, I was waiting for the dental hygienist, and noticed three sisters, around the ages of four to seven, staring rudely at a sweet child aged five or six. The more they stared, the more the sensitive girl shifted uncomfortably in her seat, trying not to cry. One of the three sisters kept gawking at the sensitive one and then giggling as she whispered in her sister’s ear. I felt so bad for the “victim” of this not-so-subtle bullying. I approached her as her mother took care of administrative business with the secretary, and showed her the ruler. I asked her, “How bad does it make you feel when those girls stare at you?” She quickly said, “Ten!” I nodded and said, “Good for you. That’s right! I also don’t like it when people stare at me like that. It makes me feel that something’s wrong with me. I have to remind myself that what they are doing is rude, and that I’m just fine!” The mother looked grateful, and I gave the ruler to the child and told her to use it to help her mother understand her feelings.

I never know how parents will respond to my interventions. It does take courage to intervene when I don’t know if they will be angry or relieved, but I do my part and G‑d takes care of the results! Using the ruler is a kind and powerful way to connect to people. These moments of connection cement relationships: if we miss them, we may never develop a sense of trust or caring. No one knows with 100 percent certainty how we are feeling at any given time, and if they don’t even care, we are left feeling lonely and disconnected. This is why children tend to be more anxious and aggravating when we are on the phone. I suggest that if you must be on the phone when a child wants your attention, tell him to squeeze your hand to let you know that he has something to say, and squeeze back to let him know that you have not disappeared!

Children tend to be more anxious and aggravating when we are on the phone

To introduce the ruler in your home, you can make a list of events which can cause people to feel scared, sad, ashamed, happy, proud or courageous. Bring the list to the dinner table or Shabbat table, and ask family members, including parents, to rate these events. For example: going to the dental hygienist, washing dishes, taking out the trash, going to camp, going on the school bus, going to synagogue, brushing teeth, taking a bath, doing homework, sports, etc.

There is a famous saying, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” So, allow people to express their feelings honestly. Obviously, if the child is dealing with a life-changing event, such as a divorce, death or disability, you need to allow more time to share. Don’t judge their feelings, trivialize their pain, argue or give advice about how they “should” be feeling. Each person has his own emotional reality. Always validate pain first. Only after they feel fully heard can you ask, for example, “You’re at 10 on the pain scale. Is there anything that would help you go down to 9, or to get to the other side?” Research shows that the very act of measuring the pain helps reduce blood flow to the lower brain, where our most primitive impulses and chaotic emotions are located, and increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, our executive center, which helps us make logical choices and think of solutions and consequences.

It is sometimes helpful to tell a child that no emotional pain lasts more than ninety seconds—unless you attach a thought of danger to the feeling. Try it on yourself. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the intensity of any emotion will fade if you can manage to avoid thinking three things:

This is pervasive. My entire life is ruined! My entire personality is awful.”

This is permanent. It’s going to last forever! I can’t take it! It’s awful!”

This is personal. People see the truth about me, that I’m really a failure.”

You can lessen the intensity by thinking:

It’s limited. True, I’m not great in this area. I do make mistakes sometimes. But I also make lots of good decisions in other areas, and have strengths that other people don’t always see.”

It’s temporary. I’ll get on with my life. It won’t last forever. I can cope.”

It’s impersonal. People see only a limited aspect of reality. It’s just their opinion.”

You might want to impart some of these positive messages when the child is ready to listen—unless he’s already so happy at being heard that he no longer needs your attention!