DISCOVERING THE TRUTH BEHIND ATTENTION-SEEKING CHILDREN COULD BE THE MISSING PIECE OF THE PARENTING PUZZLE.
By Chaim Drizin, MA, LMFT
Positive reinforcement is often overlooked in the myriad parenting approaches in existence. When taking stock in one’s children’s lives and interests isn’t enough, success in parenting requires families to go one step further. Once you have a strong, positive belief in your children, the next step is to notice them. “Noticing” is the key to the Nurtured Heart Approach, which was developed by Tucson educator and therapist Howard Glasser, MA, in his work with difficult children. Today he uses it successfully with a wide range of children, from challenged to average to highly intelligent.
Nurtured heart begins with the simple act of noticing our children as they go about their ordinary days, doing ordinary activities. Nurtured heart is not about applauding their obvious successes and big moments. It’s about walking over to your three-year-old who is drawing on a paper and saying, “I see that you are drawing a red line, a blue circle and green square.” You didn’t judge or compliment; you just noticed. But that means the world to your child, who thinks, “My daddy (or mommy) noticed me. I am important.”
This seemingly small act of noticing has a huge positive impact. Your child knows he matters to you exactly as he is, not because of any natural gift or outstanding accomplishment. Really noticing your child a few times a day, and sharing what you notice with him—including the details that make it believable—lays the foundation for true self-confidence.
Discovering the truth behind attention-seeking children could be the missing piece of the parenting puzzle.
Success is wonderful, but not every child can be a musical prodigy or outstanding Torah scholar. The bulk of children are wonderfully average—yet they often feel invisible because they are not excelling. Instead, many will grab our attention in the only other way they can—by acting out.
For example, imagine that five children are quietly reading in the family room. Everyone is behaving nicely—but no one pays attention to any of them. Suddenly one child gives another a kick, and all the attention shifts to that child. “Come here, I want to talk to you,” an adult begins. Thus, the lecture ensues. This is exactly what the child is looking for; he is begging to be noticed. If we enable the behavior by getting upset—and most of us will—the child will keep repeating the behavior. Negative attention, for most children, is better than no attention. And youngsters will do whatever it takes to make us wake up and pay attention.
But if we notice them in their ordinary, everyday lives, they have no need to act out. More importantly, change happens in our children’s lives when they are noticed. You begin by noticing the small acts and then move on to remarking on positive behaviors—still without adding any judgment. You might say, for example, “I notice that you brought your homework home. That’s an important part of doing well in school.” Or, “you got up this morning and got dressed and ready for school, even though I know it’s hard for you.”
You are reinforcing acceptable behavior. Also, by taking time out of your important, busy day to notice your children, you underscore the message that they matter, a cornerstone in the development of emotionally secure, happy children.
UP THE ANTE
In time, as your child responds to your noticing, you up the ante by framing your children’s characters with words. “I noticed you sharing toys with your sister,” you might tell your son. “You showed kindness.” Or you might tell your daughter: “This morning when I was busy with the other children and couldn’t help your brother, you took the time out to help. That shows your goodness and caring about people.”
These are still not judgments. You are simply noticing what they are doing and framing the behavior with character traits. The Rebbe said, “Verbal communication becomes imperative for full activation of the positive potential.” In parenting, it means that what we notice is what the child becomes. The child is likely to repeat the desired behavior because it captured our attention, our noticing. We open the door for the child to take on that quality.
Parents may believe they are noticing their children in positive ways by saying things like “You played nicely,” or “you did your homework well.” That’s like saying “great job,” a short, meaningless praise that most kids don’t believe. We need to thicken the story with details and particulars in order for it to be real and meaningful for our children.
Another pitfall is when we fail to understand how our children hear what we say. A father once insisted that he was telling his son positive things and couldn’t understand the boy’s resistance. “I tell him he has such a good head… if only he would use it,” he revealed. That tells me that the son processed it something like this: “I have a good head but my father says I don’t use it. So why should I bother?”
My own experience as a child shows me how powerful words can be. My father prayed meditatively for three to four hours every day. On Shabbos, he prayed for seven. Yet he left me in the dust. When I davened Mincha, my father would complain, “What kind of prayer is that?” My reaction? I’m dead in the water. I can’t do this.
Had he noticed the two minutes when I did daven properly, had he said, “I saw you praying and I saw a little bit of a meditative prayer,” his words would have opened up the possibility for me to become an oved, too—to pour my heart into prayer. If he would have said it three or four times a month—or even in a year—things might have been different.
Words are very powerful. So powerful, in fact, that if we want our children to be honorable, trustworthy, reasonable and so on, we begin by attaching these words to their behavior when they display these qualities. If we notice when children are honest, we make honesty visible for them; we let them incorporate honesty as a part of who they are. What we notice is what our children will become; this is where they will go.