National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Attention Please!

Family Matters

BY Dr. Ray Guarendi

September 12-25, 2010 Issue | Posted 9/3/10 at 3:53 PM


My sons (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?

Back when I was a young shrink — a shrinkling? — a popular notion was that children act up to get attention. The theory was: Kids crave any kind of attention, good or bad. If they’re not getting enough good, they’ll force bad, because bad attention is better than no attention.

Like many theories, with time, this one showed itself to be too simple. Kids misbehave for countless reasons, attention being only one. Yes, at times Oscar may provoke discipline just to be at the center of the attention that goes with it. But the main reason kids act up is pretty straightforward: They want to do what they want to do and a grown-up is in the way. Put more simply, misbehavior is more often a matter of impulse or will rather than seeking attention.

This is not to say that attention won’t keep rowdiness rolling. There are a whole lot of behaviors that get inflamed by attention. For now, let’s scrutinize the notion that the cause of misbehavior is a need for attention.

To begin, it can make the most loving, attentive parent feel inadequate. After all, if you were doing a better job of complimenting and rewarding, your child wouldn’t feel such a need to force more attention from you. Actually, sometimes you can be overattentive. Kids blossom under unconditional love, but the world doesn’t revolve around them. The sun is still out there, though it may not always throw off as much heat as kids do. You needn’t drop what you’re doing every time Lionel asks, demands or finagles for your time. And you don’t have to be ever vigilant to compliment him whenever he walks across the room without tripping. The average kid craves attention, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet all his cravings.

My experience is that in loving homes the problem is not lack of attention. Rather, it is a lack of enforcing “Enough of that” when little Armbruster is being testy or obnoxious, as kids are wont to do.

There is a rule of childrearing that says: The more you notice the good behavior, the less you’ll have to discipline the bad. Generally this is so, but it’s not a perfect relationship. Depending upon your child’s temperament, your temperament, his mood, your mood, his surroundings, your surroundings, you will have to discipline more or less, no matter how positive your parenting. Such is the reality of guiding children (and not something less complicated, like the space shuttle).

So, should you start scrutinizing how you might be inattentive to your youngsters? I wouldn’t. It’s probably better to first look at how and why you might be inattentive to when they are asking for discipline. You may find that if you are willing to discipline when needed, without a whole lot of fanfare (i.e. attention), it’ll be a lot easier to be attentive otherwise. For one thing, you won’t be so exhausted struggling to placate ever-increasing demands. For another, your kids will be nicer to be around. And your compliments will come more naturally because they are earned.

The doctor is always

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