Monday, 2 November 2009

The Demand for Attention



A great deal is written and worried about when it comes to attention-seeking behaviour in children. A lot of the concerns are a result of the very-disturbing adults we all know at least a handful of, who are examples of why attention-seeking behaviour run amok is so unattractive.

When parents (and onlookers) attribute that adult behaviour to children who successfully attained as much attention as they needed... there is a problem.

One thing that La Leche League taught me long ago was:  

a need met dissipates while a need unmet remains 

Children need attention. They don't want it or demand it or prefer it or brat it up because they're devious, selfish little hellions in need of a smack. They need it.

Like how they need food and shelter and protection from predators and fresh, clean water and shoes.

Well, maybe not the shoes. But attention, they need. In the absence of appropriate attention, children are unsafe both physically and psychologically. They instinctively know that they need attention, so when they are not getting it, they devise creative and astonishing methods of acquiring it. Often extremely effective creative and astonishing methods...

In the lovely, funny and pointed book about childrearing, Purrfect Parenting, Barbara Guhl points out that children prefer lovely fresh breakfast cereal that's crisp and flavourful, with fresh, chilled milk. When they are starving, they will eat stale old breakfast cereal that's dusty and served with warm, soured milk. What they want is the good kind, but they'll take any over none.

When they get none, they do the most remarkable things. Things I have known attention-starved children to do include (but is not a comprehensive list):
  • throw an armchair through a (rental house) living room window
  • stand on the train tracks to see if the train would kill him (he was 4)
  • cut a flower girl dress to shreds with paper scissors the day before the wedding
  • gag herself in order to barf in a restaurant (she was 3)
  • stand on a kitten (he was 4)
  • pick a stranger's baby up by the ears (he was 6)
  • sit and then stand on a baby's head (4 years old)
  • light a basement curtain on fire
Now, the thing about these amazing feats is that the children weren't angry --they were all acting with a deep concentration and hypervigilance about where the parent's eyes were. Every one of them smiled when they got caught --sending their freaked out parents right over the edge. But that smile was from the very heart of them: there, it worked. Whew... relief --attention at last.

When these kids grow up, they'll have the most remarkable set of coping skills imaginable: like a train wreck their lives become the thing of legend --seriously unattractive, but so hard to look away. So hard not to talk about.

If, though, these attention-seeking adults had made eye contact with someone who took them seriously, and reflected their experience back to them and interpreted the extremely contradictory and confusing huge world for them with kindness, generosity and love, they wouldn't be the attention-seeking adults they have become. They would be able to co-exist with other equals from a position of being fulfilled --not empty and starving and willing to do anything, sell anything, permit any kind of humiliation just to get looked at for one more moment. Just one more bowl of tooth-breaking cereal swamped with curdled milk in what amounts to a steady diet of it...


Photo used with permission: Creative Commons Attributed-Non-Derivative photo: Milk and Cereal by Steven Wilke