- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

By the time a child is 3 years old, 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 disciplined successfully. Furthermore, disciplining will be relatively easy. A child who reaches Conclusion 2 can be disciplined neither easily nor successfully.

This is because the disciplining 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 are acting as if it is their job to pay as much attention to him as they can.

The child who reaches Conclusion 2 has acquired, by age 3, an attention deficit. Not attention deficit disorder, mind you, because there’s nothing wrong with him. Nonetheless, there definitely will be disorder in the house.

His parents will say things such as, “He doesn’t listen to us,” “We have to yell to get his attention” and “We have to get right up in his face before he does what we’re telling him to do.” Yep, he has an attention deficit all right, but 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 children, that the more attention one pays one’s child, the better one is as a parent. That is, after all, the prevailing belief, and it has prevailed 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 service parents could call for 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 first to calm her and then to offer advice on how to solve the problem. It slowly dawned on me that every person on the 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, also was 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 and over. They would assure us that they were following our instructions, but the problems kept getting worse.

So, not considering for a moment that we might not be giving good advice (unthinkable), we would 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.

They need supervision from parents who know where they are, what they’re doing and with whom they’re doing it. 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 when Conclusion 2 kicks in, and no medicine has yet been invented that will cure the ensuing disorder.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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