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Your Attention Please!

by Dr. Jacob Mermelstein

An individual feels secure by virtue of the psychological assets he possesses. These assets may be one or more, or a combination of, several phenomena that "guarantee" one's physical, social, and emotional life.

First, perhaps, comes a feeling of faith in oneself, one's loved ones, society as a whole, and a socio-religious system one believes in. Then there is money, the "guarantor" that supposedly buys all possible material goods, love, prestige, and power. Equally important are the experiences of the past that help us predict the future. These experiences give us the sense of security, the belief that "I have managed before, I can do it again," a feeling that things somehow work out, and that the future will not necessarily be worse than the past.

Needless to say, there are numerous other assets that are of universal value or are valued by an individual, correctly or incorrectly. The important thing is that every adult has something.

A child is not that fortunate. He has no past to guarantee the future, no money to give him power, and self-esteem is only in the process of emerging. Concepts such as faith in others or in a social system have no meaning to him. All he has is the parent who, it is hoped, represents security to provide for his physical, social, and emotional needs.

Yet this source of security is constantly in danger. First, it must be shared with his siblings. Then there are the outside obligations and personal needs of parents -- jobs, social commitments, a need to read, rest, and so forth -- that compete with the child for the parent's time and attention. And when parents are depressed, anxious, or emotionally preoccupied, then even when they do attend to the child, they remain emotionally distant, and the need for attention remains unsatisfied.

Thus one notes that children are most demanding when there are guests in the house or a sibling has a friend over. Our child pesters us just when we are busy on the phone or in a rush to go someplace. When the baby has to be fed or a sibling is ill, then sibling rivalry adds to his misery, and he becomes "just impossible." And when the parent has a headache or is depressed or anxious, this child shows no consideration whatsoever; he is totally "selfish." The truth, of course, is otherwise. For it is at these times -- when the parent is able to give the least attention -- that the child's "security," i.e., attention, is threatened the most.

Unfortunately, modern society demands a great deal of us socially and emotionally, and parents suffering from impatience, headaches, depression, anxiety, or lack of time are far from rare. To get him "off our back," we then attempt to pacify our child with toys and "things," which at best are poor substitutes for our attention. And when this finally fails to work, we say, "He is spoiled -- he has it too good." Again we label, but accomplish nothing.

Attention Competitors

Thus we may understand why "good," productive, charismatic parents frequently have -- all things being equal -- the greatest difficulty with their children. These parents have more "competitors" for their child's need for attention. They are busier, admired by others (who are rivals to the child), and usually more impatient. This productive parent then says: "All my work is for my child; why is he so angry?"

Indeed, this parent gives his child all the "things" that should make him happy. What he forgets is that it is this very productivity that robs the child of the parent's time. The "things" he gives the child are poor and unreliable substitutes. If the parent has fallen into the trap of buying off the child by giving him the "things" he demands, then he is doubly so in trouble. The child now wants the parent (i.e., attention) and the things. Neither one of these satisfy him. The attention is insufficiently and only grudgingly given, and the "things" are inadequate substitutes.

Finally, he may attempt the "obnoxious" route. "I dare you to ignore me," he says. For instance, he stomps his feet as he walks. As a child he annoys, in the classroom he clowns, and as an adolescent he acts out. When we punish him, saying, "He is asking for it," we are indeed telling the truth as it is, for when attention cannot be gotten in an adaptive fashion it will be wrenched from us in a maladaptive manner.

Once this is "learned," it becomes the only way known to work, and the cycle is set up. The child demands and annoys, the parent withdraws, so now the child has to demand more. In another scenario the child is obnoxious, the parent reacts ("proving" that the obnoxious behavior "works", i.e., attention is bestowed), and this behavior is learned and reinforced.

Creative Solutions

With some ingenuity, numerous possibilities can be explored. The talented teacher can talk to our child, yet attend to the entire class and interact with each child individually -- all at the very same time. He uses his eyes -- a look, a wink, a gesture. He scans the entire classroom, resting momentarily upon each face, and transmits unspoken messages: "I hear, I see, I am attending to you." Similarly, the parent can feed the child, yet interact visually or verbally with someone else. He can be on the phone with whoever is "important," yet put his arm around the child, implying, "It is really you who are important."

When in a hurry (implying lack of time for the child), one can "take time" in the form of only one minute, but with total attention. The parent thus says, "Attending to you comes first. Here is my first installment in the form of one minute. The rest will follow." At the dinner table or in the family car, the parent can orchestrate the children so that each and every one has his say yet is able to await his cue, knowing for sure that his turn will come...

With patience, ingenuity, and a little time, a great deal of attention can be given... Isn't this what life is all about?


 






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