How Much Attention Do Children Need?

The short answer to this question is that children need a lot of attention. Parenting is not a part-time job — they need attention at the right time and of the right quality. If they receive this attention, they will be satisfied, they will be fulfilled. If they don’t get it, they will go looking for it, often in the wrong way. They will look for it from teachers and from their friends. They will look for it from you. They will demand it from you, and you will end up having to put a lot more time and attention into your children, often in ways you don’t want, than if you had given them the attention they needed when they needed it.

The most important skill as a parent is to be able to recognise when children do need attention and when they don’t.

We all need attention — or put another way — we all need love.

The Problem of Time and Work-Life Balance

The important thing is that your child has 100% of your attention for some time every day. The amount they need will vary depending on their personality, what is happening in their world — but you can’t be vaguely there, or thinking of what you have to do later in the day or worrying about some work-related or domestic issue. If you don’t do this, there will be a deficit, dissatisfaction, a yearning that will need to be fulfilled at a later time.

It’s also important that when we are with our children that we are sharing something of ourselves — not just being busy with them — taking them places or doing “stuff”. There needs to be that human connection of your heart to their heart.

This may be very challenging for some parents who, like me, had a demanding role in their work, or who are responsible for other people, or who just have to earn a living for their family without a lot of choices as to how they are going to do that. This is where you may need to have a re-think about your work-life balance, to re-evaluate your priorities, and make some decisions about what is important to you before it’s too late.

It may be that you need to ask for help. I know an awful lot of sharing goes on amongst the parents here at SOTE in looking after each other’s kids and helping out when people are sick or under pressure, and that can really be important.

Attention in the School Setting

In the School, we recognise that children need attention to have their needs met, and that is part of the idea behind small class sizes and the higher teacher/student ratio. Children always see it as a 1:1 ratio but the teacher would find it hard to give much 1:1 if there are 25 or 30 children in a class.

Teachers also need to learn about giving the right quality of attention and that means understanding the children’s needs and the issue of timing.

If a child hasn’t had their need for attention satisfied, they will then unconsciously look for attention through their behaviour — what we in education call “attention-seeking behaviour”. This is usually negative in form, e.g. teasing others, bullying, talking out loud inappropriately and generally saying — “Look at me! Look at me!” Such behaviour usually has a long history!

Teachers are dealing with this sort of behaviour all the time. Sometimes it has come from strictness and sometimes from spoiling, and teachers have to make sure they are not over-strict or over-indulgent. If they are, there are usually pretty obvious behavioural consequences which the children enact.

Can children have too much attention? Yes, they can, but not too much positive attention. Usually if there’s too much attention, it’s not coming from the best motivation on the part of the parent. I think there is a spectrum in these forms of attention from strict to spoiling.

In the case of the overly strict parent, there is a motivation, albeit unconscious, of a need to control the child. This will involve a lot of attention but it will be overly intense, it will probably involve overly high expectations of the child’s behaviour and/or it will be too restrictive. This will have the effect of the child’s true nature being repressed and the child may feel confused between wanting the attention they are being given by the parent, but still not being satisfied because their real needs have not been met. Smothering has the same effect.

On the other hand is spoiling. Interestingly, this form of too much attention is usually motivated by the parent’s guilt from not being able to give the child enough attention and so the parent compensates by giving the child stuff /material things or allowing them to do things they shouldn’t or indulging the child. Unfortunately, this can backfire, because spoiling leads to indulgence which leads to a more demanding child who requires more indulgence, and as we all know, there can be unlimited wants, and because we have limited resources, this leads to dissatisfaction and discontent which can never be satisfied.

The Role of Suffering

I wanted to say something about children’s ability to experience some level of suffering. This is the idea that children will inevitably face suffering of various sorts in their lives and that to truly learn to love, also means to be able to sacrifice. We need to help children be able to experience suffering without it creating permanent damage for them. Indeed one definition of resilience is the courage to come back after suffering.

We need to let our kids experience suffering that is within their capacity — rather than over-protect them. They need, for example, to be able to experience the consequences of their actions.

Some of our students have experienced more suffering than you would want for a young person — through illness, abuse, family breakdown or the trauma of losing a parent, but even these things can be endured, indeed must be endured. If we can help them through it and not get stuck in the experience of suffering they will be able to grow. One of the best ways to do that is with appropriate attention to their needs.

So, this issue of suffering is an important one — we can’t avoid our children suffering or being hurt emotionally, but we can help them to develop a reservoir of emotional security that will make that suffering bearable and endurable.

Adolescents Need Attention Too

We are tempted to think that adolescents don’t need much attention. Indeed, they would have us believe sometimes they don’t want our attention at all. However, all of us need attention, and adolescents are no exception, it is just that the attention needs to have a different quality. Adolescents need us as a safety net as they try themselves out in the adult world with relationships, work and other forms of responsibility.

Sometimes they “bite off more than they can chew” and they need to be able to come home and spend some time “licking their wounds”, to mix my metaphors. What they don’t need is smothering attention, or “I told you so” type responses that negate the importance of making their own choices. Of course some protection is still needed, especially from high-risk situations, but it needs to be in proportion. They still need their parents as a safety net. They still want to know what we think (even if they don’t agree). They still need boundaries. They still need love and affection (just not in public).

This is a touchy area and parents need all the help they can get. But if we can build our capacity to understand our children’s needs and to give them the right kind of attention, when it’s needed, then we shall be doing our children a great service.

Building Our Own Capacity

So where do we get the capacity? Where do we get the wisdom and the great reservoir of patience that is needed for parenting? My experience is that what we need is a capacity, and opportunity for, quietness and reflection. We need some time in the day when we regenerate our energy and objectivity. We need some time every day when we can be quiet without all the “busy-ness” and demands of life pressing in on us — that may be through yoga or meditation, but it could also be going for a walk, being in the garden — whatever quietens you down.

In that quiet frame of mind we have the chance to reflect, and to generate a greater capacity for those three great qualities of parenting mentioned in the SOTE School Song which we also want our children to learn: “Forgiveness, Tolerance and Patience, Patience, Patience”.

So to finish: How much attention do children need? Lots, but it has to be of the right kind and the right time. As School Founder, Vijayadev Yogendra, writes in his book “Good Parenting”:

“I have come to the conclusion that the approach one has to take in parenting is more a matter of looking at oneself, improving oneself and becoming a better person who is more content, patient and tolerant.”

About the Author

Richard Waters was principal of the School of Total Education between 1978 and 2011. He has taught at both primary and secondary levels and has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers. He is also a teacher of senior Study of Society and History.

This article was originally published in the Term 4 2010 edition of the SOTE Newsletter. (Published on web site: May 2011)