Monday, 28 January 2008

Attention seeking

Miranda Devine, journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, described an all too familiar situation in her article “Smack in the middle of hysteria” last Thursday. Ms Devine was at the gym when she heard a child screaming at the top of his voice. To the dismay of all the affected gym-goers who were wishing a stop to the piercing noise, the mother of this hysterical child resigned to do nothing.

The journalist used this example to illustrate that, nowadays, parents are too permissive; they are reluctant or even incapable of putting limits on their kids. Although I agree with her observation, the remedy she proposed in the article missed the point completely – Ms Devine suggested that a judicial smack by the mother might just resolve the problem and put a stop to the screaming.

As a psychologist who apply psychological research to everyday life I will identify the real problem and propose a few possible solutions.

The real problem is that parents do not pay enough attention to their children. By virtue of their inaction, they are not using one of the most important psychological tools to raise intelligent and well behaved kids: psychological reward of good behaviour.

There could be a number of reason why parents do not pay enough attention to their children. The demands of our modern work life is the most commonly sited answer. In my opinion, this is seldom the real cause. Hard working parents can (and do) pay attention to their children when they have the time and the will to do so.

In a lot of cases, parents who have too much free time are the ones who are not paying attention to their kids. In Ms Devine’s article the permissive mother was not at work but working out at her gym.

Some parents argue that by not “pay too much attention” to their children, they wish to raise independent human beings. Hence, they leave their children watching television independently, playing videogames independently, etc.

This is a misconception as much as a misguided children-rearing method; these children would not becomee independent just because they are entertained indenpendently from their parents. On the contrary, it just means they have another type of dependency - on television, on videogames, etc. When these crutches are taken away from them, they demand attention from their parents; sadly, the easiest way to command attention from their time-poor parents is to act up.

Raising independent human beings is helping the young to acquire a number of tools that would make them independent human beings. Among others, these tools are: acquisition of good habits (for example, making healthy food choices ), knowledge, problem solving skills, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt to new situations.

Watching television and playing videogames do not help anyone in acquiring these abilities. These abilities require parents to spend quality time with their children. I can provide a few examples here: involve in the kids’ daily life, reading to and with them, ask intellectually challenging questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking and prompt them to use their knowledge in different situations, etc.

For example, one cannot teach children how to swim by throwing them to the pool several times until they learn. I can imagine a frustrated parent after the tenth time smacking his/her kid because he/she does not put enough effort. Quite the contrary, one has to spend time with the kid in the pool until he/she learns how to float and, eventually, how to swim. Only after the kid has acquired these skills, the parent could just watch the kid from the edge of the pool. Consequently, raising independent human beings require a lot of time spent with one’s kids at the beginning and gradually less time, rather than no time at all.

What happens when children do not receive attention from their parents? They use an innate mechanism which proved to be successful to get attention. Babies cry when they need attention (i.e., when they need feeding, cleaning or just a cuddle). They learnt that when they cry they receive attention, so they keep doing it. Crying is something that makes parents paying attention to their children. Older children that do not receive enough attention do the same: they do something that annoys parents, so their parents pay attention to them. Their need for attention is such that sometimes the attention that their parents pay to them when they smack them is better than no attention at all.

Smacking, in psychological terms, is intended to punish bad behaviour. However, for children that are left alone, smacking means that their parents somehow interact with them. Consequently, smacking, rather than being a punishment it becomes a reward.
This means that smacking, instead of punishing bad behaviour; it is a reward of bad behaviour. Therefore, smacking increases the chances that the misbehaviour will be repeated.

Ironically, punishment of bad behaviour usually does not serve the purpose of avoiding bad behaviour. Only in very limited and specific situations can punishment be justified. For example, if your kid is about to put her/his fingers in the socket, saying “no” in a loud voice and, if necessary, physically avoiding your kid from doing so, are necessary punishments.

On the other hand, rewarding good behaviour send a positive signal. By reward I do not mean a candy, or any kind of treat, I mean the most important psychological reward that a child could receive: attention.

For instance, sharing activities with your kids will encourage them to engage in these activities, because they know that these activities would lead to them receiving attention. Hence, accompanying your kids in the activities that you would like your kid to do is the best way of avoiding misbehaviours. Most importantly, it is the best way of encouraging good behaviour.

While you pay attention to your kids you are also helping your kids in developing a psychological skill that would be a reward in itself in the future: thinking.

When your kids learn how to think on their own, thinking in itself becomes rewarding. Therefore, in the future you could reduce your “attention time” because your kids will enjoy their time in intellectual pursuits on their own.

To conclude, smacking and saying “no” are two different things. The latter is necessary in certain occasions and is important for children to know what is wrong behaviour. On the other hand, smacking is usually the sheer reflection that parents did something wrong in the past and formed bad habits in their kids and they are now looking for desperate measures.

Attention is what children seek. Our task as parents is to pay attention to our children and meanwhile helping them to develop their thinking skills, so that in the future they will need less attention from us.

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