Children do things to get our attention. They throw loud, notable fits in the grocery store.  They kick their siblings.  They whine.  They sob.  They talk about underwear and diarrhea at the table.

And it works!  They get our attention – often in the form of a stern look, a hushed voice, a sharply held hand, or other more or less creative adult responses.

The thing is this.  If children are trying to get our attention, it is because they need our attention.  Period.  And they lack the social tools to get it without making us want to pull our hair out.

We need to change our approach to “attention-seeking behaviors.”  Instead of merely trying to change the unwanted behaviors, we need to help our children trust that they are important enough to warrant our full attention.  Likewise, we need to respect them enough to be clear when our attention is divided. 

Children are well aware that what is important gets attention.  Unfortunately, in the smart-phone era, children know they are in very real competition with gadgets.  Attention is scarce, and scarcity brings out the fight-or-flight in us.

At the same time, children learn from watching what is modeled.  Children need models in their lives who spend time with peers, read books for fun, take walks in the evening, or give attention to recipes.  Attending to our children is possible to the extent that we attend to our own needs as human beings.

Four helpful ideas about attention:

1.  Give children uninterrupted time everyday.  Ten minutes of time snuggling after school or observing children engaged with blocks is a fantastic goal.  Children who have the attention of significant adults in their lives feel secure and capable.

2.  Put away the smartphone.  Silence it.  Put it in another room.  Lock it in the car.  Do whatever it takes for your child to have your undivided attention.  When you are spending time present with your children, be present.

3.  Attention does not equal involvement.  Giving attention to our children does not mean micro-managing their play or their peer choices.  We can be present and mindful without getting involved.

4.  Be honest about where your attention is focused.  While I do believe children should be able to have our undivided attention, I do not believe children can (or even should) have our undivided attention all the time.  We need to work.  We need to engage with other adults.  We need to play Words with Friends on our smartphones.  But we need to respect our children enough to be clear with them about where our attention is going.  Admitting, “I am in the middle of (changing a diaper/finishing a work email/listening to the morning news), and I will be done soon.  Then, you can have my full attention.” is so much more respectful than the monotonous “uh-huh” of a semi-engaged adult.

Let children know what is happening before it happens.  Involve them if it would be developmentally appropriate:

  • I am getting ready to make a phone call.  While I’m talking, I can’t give you my full attention.  I will be here while you are playing, so if you need me, you can let me know.
  • Do you mind if I have a five minutes to listen to the radio while we drive?  After that, I will turn off the radio and we can talk.
  • I had a very full afternoon.  My mind is overloaded.  I need 10 minutes to be by myself before I can give my attention to anything else.

Sometimes, children ask for our attention while we are already in the middle of something else:

  • I am working on finishing a message for work. I will be done soon, then can you tell me about your day?
  • You want to read with me.  I am finishing dinner right now.  After we eat, I can read with you.  Let’s write a note so we don’t forget.
  • You have something important to tell me.  I am cleaning up the art room. Can you tell me while I sweep the floor?  Even though I am sweeping, you have my attention.

Attention, as Simone Weil says, truly is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

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How do your children ask for your attention?  How do you handle it?