-- Chapter from Being and Becoming -- Your Attention Please Chapter from Being and Becoming -- Your Attention Please
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  Chapter 23 from
Being and Becoming
A guide for better living, parenting and teaching by a veteran educator and therapist

By Dr. Jacob Mermelstein 

Other Available Chapters

Your Attention Please

How does one deal with that “nudgy,” obnoxious, attention-seeking child? Here he sits in the classroom, forever demanding attention: acting the clown, calling out, rattling his belongings, or just being different in order to stand out. There he is at home, wanting what he wants when he wants it, instantly, outshouting his siblings and his parents, dominating the family’s time and attention. At the table or in the car he must be heard first, and, if at all possible, exclusively. His needs predominate and have priority over those of all others. Yet when asked to contribute his services or attention to family matters, he is unwilling to do so.

Interestingly enough, when questioned clinically, this child sees himself as the victim rather than as the perpetrator, and blames others for his woes. Without therapeutic intervention, this “obnoxious” behavior pattern usually accelerates and worsens. Our child is unable to learn that his behavior, rather than improving his position, in actuality pushes him out of the family or social circle. He accomplishes nothing, but the behavior pattern persists.

We label all of this as “attention-getting behavior,” as if such identification of a trait solves anything. We then either dismiss this matter by saying, “That’s the way he is [and nothing can be done],” or take punitive countermeasures, believing that, “He must learn his lesson -- he must keep quiet.” Neither of these approaches work, and the situation not only remains, but worsens.

What does the child really need? A little food (far less than the baby-food jar prescribes), a little shelter (far less than our modern homes provide), and lots of attention. In this attention lie the psychological underpinnings of security, love, power, self-esteem, and much more. The need for attention is not solely a childhood phenomenon. Adults, as well, need attention. We dress up to catch the eye of others, drive prestigious cars, beautify our homes, act witty, attempt to appear prosperous, and so forth -- all in order to draw the attention of others.

Conversely, we shout or act obnoxiously to intimidate others; we seek the sympathy of others; we walk and talk with mannerisms that supposedly convey meaning to others. To the extent that such maneuvers satisfy our needs, yet are socially accepted and valued, we speak of one’s adjustment or maladjustment. Yet the fact that individuals persist in maintaining maladaptive behavior patterns teaches us that what is maladjustment in the eyes of society is an adjustment and adaptive behavior as (incorrectly) perceived by the protagonist. So, too, the child persists, and the (mal)adaptive behavior is maintained.

Attention and Security

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.

Our 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.

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.

The Child and His Choices

The child must have “his” attention. He has several choices at his disposal. If he receives his due, then all is well. If he does not, he may use pseudo-adaptive methods that may receive social approval, but in their extreme form demand too high a price. Thus he may become overly striving, highly competitive, seductive, or a “goody-goody.”

Alternately, he may be drawn to people, things, or systems which promise that highly coveted individual attention. He may join gangs where he is “special” in some way, take to the bottle or to drugs that seem to give him “love,” or fall for psychopathic charlatans who peddle pseudo-love and attention. Thus, for example, do unscrupulous operators invent “religions” or “isms” that draw tens of thousands of unhappy youngsters with the promise of love and attention.

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.

To Give the Impossible

Our child arrives in this world and is given intense and undivided attention. For his sake and for the sake of those around him he must be weaned -- but how? Attention means time, patience, and a status of uniqueness -- all highly prized and not readily available commodities. Yet with some ingenuity it can be done.

First and foremost, parents and teachers and all those dealing with children must realize that “attention” is the child’s lifeline, not an undeserved luxury. Secondly, our child will get it, if not graciously, then with rage and turmoil, even if he drives himself to insanity in the process as well as seriously disturbing those around him. To give him all the attention he wants, even if such were possible, would only make him into an addict craving for even more. So we must wean him; he must learn to do with less and manage with substitutes.

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. That parent does not throw up his hands in disgust or have his own temper tantrum. No, he wields his baton, holding one, yielding to the other, or he brings about a performance in concert: “Let’s hear what Aaron has to say, so Sarah can respond and we all have a conversation.”

Every child can be unique, as every human truly is. One person is helpful in special situations; one child is athletic; another is pleasant to talk to. As it is with food or rest, attention given before it is direly needed requires far lesser amounts than when it is wrested from us by the “starving” child. Similarly, gifts given when not expected or asked for are more potent than the present wrenched from us through emotional blackmail. The spontaneous gift, however small, makes the child think: “As busy as she is, my parent is thinking of me.”

Giving the child independence, exposing him to various social situations, having him explore the world, and allowing him to find his own pleasures will equally so give him healthy substitutes for parental attention, and make the weaning process easier. Conversely, the dependent child says, “You have caused me to be socially backward, so now you attend to me.”

When parents take total responsibility of their child's “fun” by demanding that he be always happy, and suggesting sources of fun, then the child may well turn to the parent and demand constant entertainment. When parents are depressed, anxious, or preoccupied, it would be best to remove themselves entirely from the scene, rather than be near the child but not be with him.

With patience, ingenuity, and a little time, a great deal of attention can be given. Then with tokenism and substitution the weaning process can take place. If the parent can truly enjoy the time he spends with his child -- even at the “expense” of his job or household duties -- then both parent and child will gain in pleasure, in meaning, in time well spent. Is this now what life is all about?

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