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Asking for Attention

“WATCH THIS!” CHILDREN YELL as they perform a cartwheel, ride fast on a bike, or build a tall tower with blocks. Often the request isn’t for us to join them in play or even comment but to focus our attention exclusively on what they are doing.

Do you remember asking an adult to observe when you attempted a handstand or pumped really high on a swing? Simply being watched fills a child’s sense of self with vital nutrition to strengthen and grow. It also helps us tune in to the skills a child is eager to learn.

Often we aren’t aware of how much practice goes into being able to create a huge Lego building or to swing easily from the bars on a jungle gym. Recently a teacher asked a third grade girl, “How do you do such a perfect cartwheel?” Her answer: “Years of practice.” For half her life, people had watched the micro-movements and body flops involved in trying for an upright cartwheel.

If I’m asked to watch these feats, I could easily upend a child’s exhilaration in their accomplishments by inserting corrections into my observations—“Maybe you should place your hands at a different angle.” Inserting my ideas reduces the flow of positive energy to the child, like a light being dimmed.

As an example, research shows that 90 percent of children who play sports would like their parents to attend their games. Those same players report feeling deflated when parents call out plays or criticism from the stands. How fortunate a child is who can count on a parent to watch her approvingly from the stands, however tense the game gets.

Children deserve recognition for being able to ask for positive attention with a phrase like “Watch this!” It’s so easy for a child to learn to get negative attention by making demands, throwing a tantrum, irritating a sibling, or breaking rules just to see our reactions. We can nurture their ability to ask for the connection and approval they need by complying when they ask.

When children are occupied practicing new skills, our tendency can be to turn our attention to our own projects. We can also fear that their need for us to focus on them in any given moment will be insatiable. If the request comes at a busy time, as it so often does, we can set a time limit—“I can watch for five minutes or after I finish this task.”

When children can count on us to observe what they are doing with enthusiasm, they are more likely to be cooperative when we have to shift our attention to something else. One of the most valuable gifts is to show amazement at what they do.


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