National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Attention Tension

Family Matters

BY Dr. Ray Guarendi

October 18-24, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/9/09 at 3:37 PM

 

My sons, ages 4 and 5, are getting more difficult and demanding as they get older. I think I give them a lot of my time and attention, but they seek more. Am I missing something?

The crux of my last Register column was that kids act up for countless reasons, attention seeking being only one. Kids routinely misbehave because: 1.) They want to. 2.) It feels good. 3.) Other kids do it. 4.) They think they can get away with it. 5.) It yanks our chains. 6.) Insert your own observations here.

What’s more, these don’t even include what we parents know are the real reasons for Oxnard’s recalcitrance: 1.) He needs a nap. 2.) I don’t think he feels good. 3.) It’s those kids at preschool. 4.) He’s going through some kind of phase. Most often, the roots of misbehavior run more wide than deep.

In loving homes, a lack of attention isn’t usually a cause of misbehavior. Indeed, sometimes it’s just the opposite. Attention is what keeps the trouble rolling. Suppose little Oxnard is upset over your stifling decision not to let him play in the bathroom sink with the water running full out and the drain closed. Escorting him out, you shut the door. Whereupon, expressing his innermost discontent, he collapses wailing on the floor and turns on his own waterworks.

No desire for attention caused this blow up. Frustration did. Nevertheless, the odds are good that if you hover near the uproar, or worse, try to talk it through quietly, Oxnard will become more inflamed. Attention here, whether in the form of your presence or words, may only feed the frenzy. If nothing is being damaged and no one is being hurt, leave the scene. The fire may die for lack of fuel (though it never fails to amaze me how long some kids can run on just internal energy).

Similarly, let’s say that Holmes is arguing for permission to go to Watson’s house. Neither his homework nor his daily chores — do kids still have such prehistoric things as daily chores? — have been started, much less completed. The more you debate over why he can’t leave until fulfilling his responsibilities, the longer he’ll debate and the hotter the exchange will become. After 27 minutes of word lock, I doubt you’ll be saying, “Holmes, we’ve been calmly interfacing for nearly half an hour, and I must admit, I’m beginning to experience some pangs of frustration.” Your point-counterpoint is a form of attention. The argument will only subside when you stop the words — either by refusing further discussion or by telling Holmes that any more debate will lead to an automatic No, extra chores or any early bedtime.

Other behaviors inflamed by attention are: 1.) nagging: This refers to Constance hounding us and not vice versa. Kids are far more adept at tuning us out than we are them. 2.) tattling: Most tattling is the stuff of daily irritation and doesn’t need parental intervention. 3.) whopper storytelling: It’s not that kids don’t know truth from fiction; they just know that fiction grabs more readers than nonfiction. 4.) quasi-nasty language: The real rough stuff you’re wise to stop, but a preschooler’s initial mouthing of a naughty word often fades if it elicits no shock reaction from big people. Where do they learn that kind of talk, anyway?

The one thing nice about misdirected attention is that it doesn’t take much effort on our part to take it away. Essentially, it requires us to stop something we don’t like doing anyway, like arguing, or leave something that’s no fun to be around, like a temper fit.

Do you hear what I’m saying? Am I making myself clear? Are you paying attention? Have you even been reading this column?

The doctor is always

in at DrRay.com.