Unconditional Love and Attention
Accept the children the way we accept trees — with gratitude, because they are a blessing — but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about our love for our children and their need for attention. Of course, all children have a need for us to acknowledge them frequently. Sometimes they seek our attention (“Mom, come play with me.”) in good ways. But sometimes children choose to misbehave instead. After all “the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease.” If our children are playing quietly, we often might leave them alone, happy that they are entertaining themselves. But if they get too loud or make a poor choice, they receive our full attention. Inadvertently we are rewarding the misbehavior. Parents can teach children to seek attention in appropriate and acceptable ways to prevent misguided behaviors. You can also identify attention-seeking behaviors when they are happening so that you can react in the moment in ways that will stop the behavior from happening again.
In addition, children need to learn that our love is not based upon their behavior. Though we may be disappointed or frustrated by how they’ve acted or reacted in a situation and we may not like them much that day, we always love them. It may seem obvious but unless it’s said, children cannot distinguish between love, approval and attention. Think about how devastating a child might feel when they are scolded for a poor choice if they think that your love is tied to their behavior. So first of all, be sure if you’ve had a challenging day that when you put them to bed you let your children know that you love them unconditionally – no matter what choices they have made.
And what about those difficult days? Is this scene a familiar one to you? Your child is playing really well all by herself on the floor. You think, “Now is a good moment to get in that phone call to the PTA President to prepare for our upcoming meeting.” You say, “Sweetie, I’m going to make a quick call. Please keep playing and I’ll be off the phone in five minutes or so.” You make the call and no sooner have said “Hello, how are you?” when little sweetie is at your side tugging on your shirt. Or she decides that now is the time to practice the drums that have been left to collect dust. Borrowing from the philosophies of Linda Albert’s Cooperative Discipline[i], Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline[ii] and Marilyn Watson’s Developmental Discipline[iii], try the following.
Identify the goal of the misbehavior.
– How do you feel when the child is misbehaving? If you are irritated, annoyed, worried or guilty, it’s likely an attention-seeking behavior. If you are really mad, it’s likely gone beyond attention-seeking into a power struggle.
– When you give your child attention (whether negative or positive), does the behavior stop temporarily? It’s likely attention-seeking because they have achieved their goal of gaining your attention. But it’s typically temporary and the behavior is soon to return.
Next time you might prevent this misbehavior by
– Teaching your children to ask for attention in ways that are acceptable to you and your partner. “Mom, I could really use a hug right now.” “Dad, I really want to tell you about what happened to me today.” After practicing together what you want your child to say, work on recognizing when they are asking in appropriate ways and give them attention in response. Sometimes all it takes is five minutes of focused attention to help a child feel like they are getting what they need. After that five minutes, you may be able to get your phone call accomplished without your children competing for your attention. Practice this!
– Specifically call out positive behaviors. All too often we get in the habit of calling out behaviors we want to change but when things are going smoothly, we are simply relieved and don’t say anything. When you see improvement, tell your child in the moment what they are doing well, particularly if it is a behavioral issue you are working on with him. Be specific. “I notice you waited until I was finished with my conversation to ask me a question. I realize that takes patience and I appreciate it.”
– Agree upon a signal. Create a signal just for your family that lets your children know that they need to wait. You’ll be with them when you are finished. The signal could be a high five, showing them that you need five more minutes. It could be pointing to your eyes and then their eyes with the intended message, “I see you need me. You’ll need to wait until I’m finished.” You could utilize standard sign language. Or make up your own. Practice and then use it regularly.
Stop the misbehavior.
– Use your signal.
– Put one hand on his shoulder and bring the other to your lips with your index finger indicating you need quiet for the moment.
– Hand him a note with a number or “wait” message on it.
– Redirect his attention to his own responsibility. “When you finish cleaning up your toys, then I will help you.”
If you spend time teaching and practicing what to do in a situation in which you cannot give your child attention, the intervention strategies under “Stop the misbehavior.” will be much more effective. This is yet another opportunity to allow your child to learn self-control. I’m always amazed that when I give my son focused attention first by playing with him for a short while, I am able to gain more time to complete my own tasks without interruption. So in this season of love, be sure you let your child know that your love is unconditional, that we all make mistakes, and we all need and deserve attention.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your family! I so appreciate all of the readers of Confident Parents, Confident Kids.
[i] Albert, L. (2003). Cooperative discipline. Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
[iii] Watson, M., & Ecken, L. Learning to trust; Transforming difficult elementary classrooms through developmental discipline. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.