Children ... Hard Wired For Attention

Parents often comment on the difficulty of managing multiple children as each child is  always clamouring for a parent’s attention.

 Attention is always a good place to start when thinking about being an effective parent.  Rule No. 1 is that children are hardwired to seek our attention.   When we all lived in caves, this need for attention ensured a child's survival .  When everyone is striving to get your attention it is helpful to replace thoughts like ‘Why are they so demanding?’, ‘Can’t they see I am overwhelmed?’, ‘How do they expect me to do everything at once?’ and catch yourself so you can remember  ‘of course they want my attention – they’re hardwired for this’.  It doesn’t immediately turn the moment into sweetness and light, but it does make you feel a bit more empathetic towards them, especially when you  realize they are not doing it because they are thoughtless or mean.

 Here are a few tips to help smooth the way:

 1. Ensure you notice and comment on appropriate behaviour significantly more than all the behaviour you don't want to see.  All too often we say nothing when they are behaving well and only pay attention when they are starting to misbehave.  From a child’s perspective any attention is better than none – so they will take the bad route if they have to.

 2. Carve out some individual time for each child.  It may only be 15-30 minutes once a week, but in those 15-30 minutes, let the child lead the activity.  It might be a dolls’ tea party with your five year-old daughter or a game of hide & seek with your eight year-old son.   The point is they will feel valued and special by having this time.  Remember this is about what your children want to do – so no pretending special time is about practicing their times tables with you!

3. If it works for your family, organize individual dates with either mom or dad.  Perhaps a visit to their favorite pizza place or an afternoon at a favorite museum.  It can be as simple as a walk in the park.  Schedule it in advance and mention it in the run-up to the event.  It will make your child feel you are really considering them.

 4. Turn your phone off during meal times so you are not continually distracted.  Mealtimes need to be a time when conversations can take place.  It is also excellent modeling for the times you expect your children to turn off their own digital devices.

If your children continually talk over each other, institute a talking stick.  This was a Native American tradition where only the person with the talking stick was allowed to speak and they were always allowed to finish before the talking stick was handed over to the next person.  Start with a physical stick (or a wooden spoon) and then move to a metaphorical one once everyone understands the concept.

5. Promote collaboration – not competition - between siblings .  You want your children to feel there is plenty of attention to go round and that they are not in a competition for it.  Avoid saying things like ‘I wish you could be more organized in the mornings like your sister!’, ‘why can’t you eat as nicely as your brother?’, ‘the first child to finish their dinner is the winner!’.  

6. Schedule quality family relaxation time at the weekend.  Play a board game together, have a long lunch in which everyone gets involved in helping to prepare and clear up.  Go and play catch in the playground.  Ensure the weekend is not just a non-stop series of scheduled activities with children and parents all going in separate ways

In a recent survey by UNICEF UK the thing that children wanted most from their parents was not more toys, or more electrical gadgets. They discovered that children simply want more time with their parents.  It brings up one of those great parenting suprises.  The more your children feel confident of having your attention and the less they fear they are going to be criticized for showing they need it ... the less they will clamour for it!

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