Attention is the currency of human connection. We all yearn to be noticed, to be seen for our authentic selves. It's human nature. As parents, we regularly experience our children's desire for us to look their way. Watch me, Mommy! Look at me, Daddy! Sometimes their need for attention can feel like an insatiable hunger. Effective parents recognize attention-giving as an effective parenting tool. They utilize their children's need for attention by heaping attention on desirable behaviors and by ignoring behaviors they wish to extinguish.
Unfortunately, the need for attention can devolve into a desperate need for approval. Kids can fall into the habit of excessive approval-seeking. Self-satisfaction, the pride of accomplishment, the pleasure of learning all can fall victim to the over-weaning need for approval. How can Intentional Parents avert this undesirable result?
Consider one of the most common ways American parents deliver attention: through comments steeped in praise. Great job! Good effort! We enjoy giving praise; they enjoy hearing it. Sounds like a win/win. But is it? Let's look deeper and see.
Imagine our child calls out for our attention. This requires us to pause what we've been doing, note their action and make them the focus of our attention. If we do this, we'll fulfill their need to be seen. This will enable us to make a connection by spending something far more valuable than money: our extremely valuable "undivided-attention currency." Their goal to feel "seen" will be filled.
What results accrue to our side of the equation? What benefit will we get? Is it the one we truly want?
If we constantly offer attention that has a judgment attached--either positive or negative--we'll vest our kids on obtaining our approval and/or avoiding our disapproval. They will perform for us. But is that the true goal of our parenting?
Don't we really want them to mature into self-motivated thinkers, who will follow family values, make choices and engage in action because it is what they perceive as the "right" thing to do based on their own internalized, moral compass?
We believe there's a better way of expressing our attention, a way that helps kids feel noticed without "addicting" them to praise. Dr. Becky Bailey, originator of the Conscious Discipline theory and author of several books offers many practical and emotionally positive strategies. Although her main focus is the classroom, parents and caregivers can learn a lot from her strategies. She suggests that adults notice or narrate without adding an element of judgment or praise.
Instead of I think you did a great job!
say, You worked and worked until you finished it!
Instead of, I love it! It's an amazing Lego© construction!
say, You spent a lot of time working on that!
Instead of, That's a terrific drawing! It's a...house, right?
say, You used lots of color in that drawing; tell me about it.
Instead of, I'm proud that you helped Michael."
say, You noticed Michael needed help and you helped him. In our family, we all try to help.
Feel the difference between the two sets of comments. Notice that the focus is on the child not on adult opinion or evaluation. The narrator-style comments still provided the child with the attention he sought. They centered on traits the adult wishes to nurture or help the child notice about themselves. Each time they have a noticing experience, these values and traits become more deeply internalized.
Over time, narrational comments help build up a sense of the child's identity as a "tryer," "completor," creator, thinker etc.
Psychotherapist Linda Graham, MFT., reminds us that,
“The brain learns from experience always and it learns best when those experiences are little and often.”
With this method, our attention focuses on reinforcing their skill sets and inner qualities. It's about what we see and what they think. And we do want them to be thinkers. And tryers, creators, practitioners of our family values. Big distinction. Kids who are overly invested in praise and approval, fall into a pattern of doing things only when they have an audience. Or, the corollary of this, they become sneaky and only observe the rules when they think they might get caught. Some develop an inability to make decisions because they're overly focused on approval or other people's opinions instead of their own inner moral compass.
Being able to trust themselves, to learn good decision-making skills and to engage in life as a "learning Conversation." It helps kids build internal resilience because they know parental approval and acceptance are not conditional.
As a grandmother who has the opportunity to care for my grandson several days each week, I have had the opportunity to observe the power of this shift in adult/child interaction. It is stunning. I can also say, that turning off the autopilot of praise is challenging but so worth the effort. Changing deeply ingrained habits takes effort and persistence.
I love it when I ask him, "Who's a tryer? A helper? A hard worker?" and he names himself in reply followed by the names of the rest of our family. Barely three and he has internalized the belief that he belongs to a family that values effort and compassion!
Intentional narration offers another teaching strategy: add a soundtrack to your own efforts. It's a great way to correct a common misconception that kids have about adults: that life is effortless for their parents, that they don't have to work hard at things, that they are magically proficient at stuff, etc. So how might this sound? Here are some examples:
Daddy is going to school tonight. Even though he's tired, he's going to learn how to do his job better.
I don't know how to do that, so I'm reading this book to learn.
I want to feel healthy, so I'm doing my yoga practice every day.
I'm learning ______, so I need to practice it every day.
This task is hard. I'm going to keep working at it until I figure it out.
In this family, we help other so I'm watching Susan while her mother goes to the doctor.
In this family, we always try, so I'm going to try again.
Those are just a few ideas. When we allow kids a peek into the times that we are being persistent, determined, tackling stuff even though it is hard, we offer them an observable model from which they can learn.