Below is a letter I received, and my answer to it:
My children do not seem to be able to focus on anything for very long even though they have never been to school. I don’t get any breaks except when my seven-year-old rides her scooter or when both children engage in a pillow fight, which is a fifteen minutes break till someone cries. If we have guests or go out to friends I have to buy them new toys to play with or hire a baby sitter. How can I help my children to become self-engaging and not so dependent on being entertained?
At age seven, one of my children chose to take an art class in a summer program. When I came to pick him up he wasn’t there. The teacher said that he wasn’t focused so she has sent him to the secretary’s office (she created short segments and he wasn’t willing to stop painting and listen to a story). As I made my way toward the office I heard my child’s foot steps coming down the stairs and the voice of the secretary saying, “We will see what your mother says.” He skipped toward me happily, “Mom, the art teacher interrupted my painting so I had a great time talking with the secretary. I don’t need this class. I will do my art at home without interruptions.”
Although your children need your attention and love, they do not need you to supply a lot of activities. When not dependent on external stimulation, even a toddler can be engaged with nothing but a thread in her hands for a long time. Children are often busy for hours playing outside with no toys, acting self-made dramas, building mud castles, watching ants and more. Truly they are masterful at focusing on whatever they freely choose.
Sometimes the issue is not over stimulation but longing to be with you. One mother who called for my advice was so eager for her child to play by himself that he became more clingy and needy because he yearned for time with her. Nurturing a child’s ability to focus and to self-engage is not about letting her be alone a lot. Make sure their need for your affection and connection is fulfilled even as you are busy doing something else.
Often your may find that your own ability to focus is the problem and that you teach short attention span. Have you ever read to your child the same story or page over and over again and you got tired of it first? Long attention span is the child’s nature, as long as she pursues her own passions without being interrupted. Even dinner and bedtime can give way to respecting the child’s innate guide.
The following are some of the common robbers of children’s innate ability to focus, and guidelines on how to use these same resources productively:
Child centered home: With best of intentions many parents confuse love and attention with child centeredness. A child who expects life to revolve around her, tends to become demanding and in turn unable to do without constant attention.
Toys that take the initiative out of the child’s hands: Toys as we know them today are new in history. Through history children grew up without toys or with very few hand made ones. Although I am not advocating abandoning all toys, I suggest a dramatic reduction in quantity and a careful selection of quality. Today’s toys are mostly good for the industry—not for the children. To preserve your children’s innate ability to focus and create, minimize toys that prescribe specific activities, and find those which leave lots of room for creation. Think of toys as tools rather than entertainment. Avoid push buttons, ready made, movie based and trickery items. Instead, have things that leave the actual activity up to the child; plain blocks, plain leggos (not story telling sets), dolls and animals, ball, jumping rope, art supplies etc. Mostly, let the child build and create with whatever is in the home and the yard; sticks, stones, sand, water, yogurt containers, boxes, torn socks, clothes and blankets etc. They can make up their own dance; build castles that don’t follow someone else’s story and design, create tents from blankets, and act out their own scenes. In this way, instead of becoming dependent on toys and programmed activities, they learn “I am my best source of joy.”
Even educational toys often fly in the face of education and of self-reliance. “But she loves doing the geography cards,” one mother told me. My response is, “if she really loves it, you need not offer and she will beg for it on her own over and over again.” If she doesn’t, it is not truly her passion. Instead, she may be trying to live up to your expectation and seek approval. Wait for the child to nag you the way she does for candy, and you will know what her real interests are. Here is a simple clue: If a child is unfocused you can be sure that she is not really interested. She is focused on something else.
Choose puzzles, toys and games carefully so the pictures and ideas don’t ignite more shopping and deprive the child of creating characters and stories. The industry is designed to hook your child on needing the next toy or movie. Choose puzzles of natural views, animals, numbers etc. instead of those with movie figures; get dolls from natural material and without pre-dictated names and stories and animals without TV roles. Choose acoustic musical instruments or improvise sound makers that don’t play the song or rhythm for the child.
Art supplies: Even some art supplies have become entertainment and dependency promoting toys. For example, coloring books keep the child more dependent and less creative. Give the child plain paper, clay, and good quality safe colors, and let her create her own shapes. Likewise, if you help her draw, she will come to see herself as incapable and be more dependent on you and on others. Avoid ready-made art supplies that do “magic” and become something the child cannot really make on his own. Toys and art that leave the child dependent leaves you the slave of the next trick. In addition, these systems prevent the child from using art to express emotions and thereby heal and relax. A nine-year-old girl told me that she prefers to follow instructions than to create her own art because it was easier than thinking for herself. Indeed, this child learned to seek instructions rather than invent and pave her own path. Following instructions is fine too, but only as a minor part of the child’s experience.
Books: Many books today have too many pictures, leaving no details to the child’s imagination. Choose books with tasteful, not over dramatized pictures, and stories that nurture sensitivity and require the child’s focus and thought. When stories move fast with lots of big action they can create dependency on fast paced changes. Minimize books that teach concepts of good and bad guys, revenge and tension; look more often for story lines that nurture interest in simple daily experiences, caring, relationships, commitment, friendship and love. The Ugly Duckling hardly has a story line, nor does Winnie the Pooh in its original version. Disney interpretations make TV shows out of some wonderful stories, so stick to the lovely originals. Children develop their focus when listening requires concentration.
Television: TV programmers assume the myth of short attention span, so the camera moves every few seconds even within the same scene. This conditions the brain to need constant changes and not concentrate on anything for too long. In addition, watching even the best of programs deprives a child of active invention, discovery, imagination, and self-directed learning. Because children are generally in such a passive state when watching, television is very successful in nurturing a short attention span and dependency on external ready made stimulation.
Educational TV: I do not recommend that children learn to read or count by watching TV either. These programs cause the same harm and more; they rob the child of inventing her own method of learning as she did for walking and talking. Figuring out the world not only develops the child’s brain, but in the process he hones his muscle of perseverance and focus.
Fast paced life: Avoid teaching your children to cram more activity into less time. Do you sometimes interrupt your child’s daydreaming or and offer an activity? Multi channel life trains the mind to be unfocused and dependent. In contrast, doing one thing at a time develops the ability to be present and to love each moment.
Lack of time to ponder: Children expect the amount of stimulation we teach them to expect. Model and provide time to ponder and to do nothing; time to listen to music without doing something else, and time to walk or sit in nature and enjoy silence, beauty and nature’s smells and sounds. Just sit together and gaze out the window, watch the sunset on the beach, the clouds, rain, mist and stars. All the rest is a distraction from real life. Stay focused on the moment and on appreciating the beauty and joy just in front of you. Children are naturally in awe of the moment until we distract them from themselves.
Naomi Aldort is the author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves and of hundreds of internationally published parenting advice columns. She offers Phone counseling, Teleclasses, CDs of her speaking and a Free Newsletter: www.AuthenticParent.com From infants and toddlers to children and teens, Aldort’s guidance takes the struggle out of parenting. Instead of ways of controlling, she provides tools of understanding and responding to your baby, child and teen, so she can be the best of herself, not because she fears you, but because she wants to, of her own free will. Naomi’s SALVE communication formula has been praised as providing the best of The Work of Byron Katie and Nonviolent Communication combined and more.