The Consequence of Undivided Attention

I just met a mom at a parent conference who approached me afterward asking, “How do parents do it theses days?” When I inquired what she meant, she said:

How do moms offer undivided attention to their children and still get everything done?

Herein lies the new gauge for today’s parents. We assume that any good parent is able to provide undivided attention to their children, to ensure high self-esteem, solid growth and guaranteed safety. After all, it’s up to Mom and Dad to get that job done.

While I agree that’s a parent’s job, undivided attention is unrealistic and unhealthy. And it likely will backfire.

Our New Unhealthy Ambition

I hope I don’t need to convince anyone that undivided attention—even to preschool aged children—is unrealistic. Kids certainly need more guidance and guarding at young ages, but they also need a small level of autonomy for their development. When we assume it’s up to us to guard, guide, protect and prevent bad things from happening, kids will not develop some essential skills necessary for maturation. The caring adult often begins to over-function and play a role the child should play for herself. Consider this: when a child says to a parent, “I am bored” they’re implying they want or need an adult to arrange for some entertainment. Too many parents assume the role of prescribing solutions instead of allowing disequilibrium and development to happen.

Not only is this unhealthy it will eventually exhaust the parent and stunt the child’s growth. It creates an unrealistic paradigm and prevents self-efficacy in kids.

A Lesson From History

Walk back in time with me for a moment. Over a century ago—parents could not give their kids undivided attention—because they frequently had between 6-12 kids. In addition, Dad was working till sundown and Mom was usually performing domestic chores all day long. In fact, each of the kids also had chores to do around the house while parents were occupied. Only as we entered the industrial age and information age did we see machines and technology reduce our work hours and offer more leisure time for us. It was then we unwittingly chose to switch our “parent report cards.”  Over time, we began thinking it was “our job” to do more for our children if we really cared about being good parents.

But it was because of these past scenarios that kids suffered less from many of the issues they suffer from today—high stress, poor self-esteem, low resilience and very little resourcefulness. Today, because Mom feels she must listen to every remark and give undivided attention to kids:

  • Kids are less resourceful
  • Kids are less resilient
  • Kids struggle with fragile self-images
  • Kids are arrogant and presumptuous
  • Kids are anxious and depressed

This is not completely due to our parenting styles—but we’ve added to the problem with our current perspective. Kids must learn early on that they are both loved and responsible for their attitudes. As we assume that responsibility for them, we rob them of appropriate growth. Some of their greatest life lessons will come when they get hurt, when they fail and when they have to manage their own time. Boston College psychologist Peter Gray says: “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”

The Unintended Consequence

Thinking we must give them daily, undivided attention, we enter a slippery slope:

  • Kids begin to depend on us to do things they should learn for themselves.
  • We become exhausted and resent their selfish attitudes.
  • Kids require inappropriate amounts of attention and affirmation from adults.
  • We begin an impossible ambition for which we are sure to fail.
  • Kids may begin to feel undue pressure, as the center of our world.

As kids grow older, the unintended consequence of this scenario is they’re unable to sufficiently care for their emotional health. Think about the undue pressure kids feel when parents have made them the center of their lives. We talk to teens who say: “I don’t dare disappoint my mom. Her whole life revolves around my performances.” A kid is not supposed to carry this kind of weight. They are, instead, supposed to carry the weight of being a member of a family who has responsibilities (chores perhaps) and value to add.

Three Simple Steps You Can Take

1. The next time your child says he’s bored, require that they solve that problem themselves.

Melissa Bernstein says, “It’s when we’re bored and have to dig deep to find ways to fill our time that imagination is born.” Boredom may just be their greatest ally.

2. Determine periods each day where you teach kids autonomy and self-regulation.

If you have to wean your kids from prescribed and supervised time with adults, ease them into it. Let them know you’re offering the gift of freedom with their time.

3. Schedule time for undivided attention and let them know you look forward to it.

As you nudge your child to figure out how to use their time, let them know you do value time with them and look forward to a planned time on the calendar.

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The Consequence of Undivided Attention