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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Kids must pay attention to parents, not vice versa

By John Rosemond

By the time a child is 3, he has come to one of two conclusions concerning his parents:

  • Conclusion 1: It's my job to pay attention to my parents.

  • Conclusion 2: It's my parents' job to pay attention to me.

    A 3-year-old who reaches Conclusion 1 can be successfully disciplined. And his discipline will be relatively easy.

    A child who reaches Conclusion 2 can be neither successfully nor easily disciplined. That's because the discipline of a child rests primarily on whether he is paying attention to his parents, and it is a fact that a child will not pay sufficient attention to parents who act like it is their job to pay as much attention as they can to him.

    The child who reaches Conclusion 2 has acquired, by 3, an attention deficit. Not one caused by a chemical imbalance or some malfunction in his brain. This attention deficit was caused by well-meaning parents who think good parents pay as much attention as they can to their kids; that the more attention one pays one's child, the better a parent one is. That is, after all, the prevailing belief, and has been since the late 1960s, when the newly emerging professional parenting class people like me, with capital letters after their names claimed that a child's psychological health was a function of how much positive attention he received from his parents.

    For several years after graduate school, I was one of several psychologists who staffed a hot-line that parents could call to receive parenting advice from a real, live "expert." The typical caller was a mother at the end of her rope about something. It was our job to first calm her down and then offer advice on how to solve the problem. It slowly dawned on me that every person on staff was saying the same thing: The problem, whatever it was, was the child's way of communicating that he or she wasn't getting enough attention. The prescription, therefore, was also the same: The parents needed to find more ways to give the child positive attention, to "catch him being good."

    I also began to realize that the same parents kept calling over and over again. They'd assure us they were following our instructions, but the problems kept getting worse. So we'd say, "You're not being consistent enough" or "You're still giving negative attention, and the negative is canceling the positive" or something equally trendy and insipid.

    I slowly came to the conclusion that too much attention creates as many problems as too little. I came to the further, admittedly radical, conclusion that past toddlerhood, children do not need much attention at all. They need supervision from parents who know where they are, what they're doing, and who they're with. Indeed, children need a certain amount of direct, one-on-one attention, but where the giving of attention to a child is concerned, one quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns. That's where Conclusion 2 kicks in.

    Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond.com.