Giving the Gift of Attention

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Ms. Smith said that we were going to have an exciting day tomorrow,” the five year old reported to her mother, “and she said we are going to paint and then see a movie and then play on the computer!”

The mother nodded as the child spoke as she focused on a TV show she had been watching. Her daughter eventually stopped and said, “Mom! Are you even listening?”

The mother looked guiltily over to her daughter and brought her full attention back to her. “Now what were you saying honey?”

It was too late, her daughter had already disengaged and mumbled, “You never pay attention to what I have to say.”

Being fully present for children is a tough task for parents. Despite the best of intentions, it can be easy to get distracted and not give children the full attention that they need. There are chores to complete, texts to reply to, games to play, shows to watch, and most of these activities are more interesting than what a child is saying.

In order to address this issue, parents need to pick times in which to be fully present with a child. This means giving undivided attention, which is the most precious gift that any parent can give to their child. Being fully engaged allows a parent to pick up on a child’s cues and to really connect. This strengthens a child’s attachment and sends the message that the child matters and is valued.

However, parents should not be required to always give a child their undivided attention. This would be exhausting and would not allow parents to get anything else done. Still, many parents have gotten the message that good parents pay attention to their children all of the time. This is an unobtainable goal and results in parents cheating by giving partial attention to their child while trying to complete different tasks.

This state of partial attention undermines the times when parents can give their undivided attention as children will discount the effort. It also robs the child in having time away from adult attention which allows her to engage in her own world and to get caught up in playing. Half-hearted bursts of attention from parents interrupt that process. It is ok for parents to have time to themselves.

The key is for parents to develop a balance between letting a child have all of their attention and when to let the child be by herself. Parents who suffer from partial attention will need to consciously set aside time when they can focus on being with their child, even if it is only for a half hour. That half hour of time will be more valued by the child than spending two hours with a distracted parent.

After the half hour is up, parents can get back to finishing chores around the house or having some time to themselves. Children will see that and get back to playing on their own.

Of course children need to be old enough to engage in independent play. Children who are under four years old will still need parents to keep a watchful eye on them to ensure that they don’t put themselves in any danger of getting hurt.

Give the gift of undivided attention to a child and reap the rewards! It is far better than being a distracted parent.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on August 24, 2014.

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