The Power of attention

by LukeAdmin

By Clancy Black

I’d like you to imagine the following situation. You have come home from work after a long day only to find your children fighting with one another. Both children want to play with the same toy and are refusing to share. One of them snatches the toy from the other and now you can hear them whinging, yelling, crying, and name calling. 

How do you respond? Desperate for some peace and quiet, you might go into the room and tell them to knock it off and just share the toys. You might give them a lecture about why name calling is wrong and about how siblings should be kind to one another. Some parents might even raise their voice or threaten to take the toys away all together. It is possible that some of these actions might result in your children being quiet in the short term, but it is likely that you will notice similar fighting the very next day (or even an hour later!). 

Now I’d like you to imagine another scene. You come home from work after a long day and your children are playing together quietly. You hear their giggles and the sounds of them planning an imaginary adventure together. Both children are using the same toys and are speaking with soft, inside voices. 

How do you respond this time? You might count your blessings that for once this week they aren’t fighting, and think to yourself that it is best to just leave them to play. Indeed, many parents in this situation avoid their children all together, worried that if they interrupt the rare moment of civility that all hell might break loose! 

Although it is tempting to not interrupt children who are playing together nicely, this is a missed opportunity to reinforce some really positive behaviours. Indeed, one of the most well-established findings in psychology is that behaviours that are reinforced are repeated. That is, when a child’s behaviours are followed by something that is positive or desirable (i.e., the behaviours are “reinforced”), the child is more likely to do those behaviours again in the future. 

There are many ways that we can reinforce children’s behaviours, but one of the biggest, natural reinforcers for children is their parent’s attention. Because attention is such a strong motivator, children quickly learn which behaviours get them their parent’s attention and which behaviours do not. Although children crave positive attention the most, attention is so powerful that children would actually rather receive negative attention from their parents (e.g., a stern lecture) than be ignored. 

Because all attention is reinforcing to children, it is not uncommon for parents to accidentally encourage annoying behaviours (e.g., whinging) by giving these behaviours a lot of time and attention. Moreover, parents often miss opportunities to reinforce positive behaviours (e.g., sharing with siblings) by not giving these behaviours any attention at all. 

If we want to improve our children’s behaviours in the long run, we need to catch them being good and give them a tonne of positive attention for doing so. If you find it hard to know which behaviours you should give positive attention to, first think of the behaviours that you find particularly difficult and try to define the opposite. 

For example, if getting off the chair at dinner time is an issue for your child, the opposite behaviour might be keeping their bottom on the seat. If your child yells a lot, the opposite behaviour could be using an inside voice. Or if you find yourself saying “no running in the house” nearly every single day, the opposite behaviour we might want to reinforce would be using their walking feet. 

Once you’ve identified the positive behaviours that you would like to see more of, here are three ways that you can reinforce those behaviours through positive attention. 

Labelled praise. Labelled praise is complimenting or thanking your child for something they are doing well. For example, if you ask your child to pack their toys away and they do, you might say, “I love how quickly you just listened to me!”. Or if your children are sharing together and playing nicely with the toys, you might say “Great job sharing with your sister” or “Thank you for being gentle with the toys.” Although it can be nice to sometimes hear unlabelled praises such as “good work” or “well done,” try to tell your children exactly what they have done right so they know what to do again next time! 

Physical touch. Pair labelled praise with a high five, fist bump, kiss on the head, or a pat on the back to make the praise extra reinforcing. For example, if your child is trying really hard to open a jar that won’t seem to budge, you might give them a pat on the back and say, “That looks frustrating but you’re going a great job staying calm. I’m here to help if you need me.”

Extra time spent together. Giving your children your undivided time and attention is such a positive reinforcer. Next time you catch your child being good, you might say something like, “Because you helped me carry in the groceries, we can have five extra minutes of special play together today”. If your child enjoys that play together, you can bet that they will be more likely to help you carry the groceries next time! 

By giving children positive attention for the things they do well, rather than negative attention for the things they don’t do so well, you are not only making it more likely that your child will do those positive behaviours again in the future, but you are improving how your child feels about themselves and enriching the relationship you have with your child. 

If your child’s emotions or behaviours are impacting on their schoolwork, home life, or relationships, there is professional help available. 

Clancy is a Clinical Psychology Registrar at The Heart & Mind Collective who works with children, adults, and families. Visit the website to learn more. 

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