Children learn absolutely everything they need to know by watching and copying. It’s amazing, but if there was no such a thing as school, they would figure everything they need to do by watching others who can already do it. They do things over and over again, forming mental patterns that allow them to walk and run, throw and catch, talk and sing. It’s precisely because they are such good imitators that we need to be mindful of what we are teaching our babies and children by our own sometimes unconscious behaviours.
We modern parents are the first generation to grow up in an environment with media that doesn’t allow a moment’s peace. We have all had our attention spans lopped off at about 3 minutes or less by soundbites, commercials, Youtube. When we talk about “Hyperactivity” and “Attention Deficit” as important problems in the classroom, we have to look at ways in which we as parents might be unwittingly contributing to their development.
Do you make a point of turning off the TV at suppertime, or is it running in the background? Do you ever turn off your phone when playing with your child, or do you automatically respond to the ‘ding’ of every incoming text? Do you flip the channels during commercial breaks? Is your laptop open all the time so you can quickly check your messages or your Facebook feed as you walk by?
Nowadays, we all suffer from a form of mental hyperactivity. The attraction of constant stimulation makes us unwilling (or actually unable) to keep our attention on what is going on in front of us. According to Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, this is not a surprise. Our adult brains are just as open to being re-wired by patterns we repeat as they were when we were young children. We are modeling for our kids that it’s normal want to “change channels”, every few seconds if need be, to keep ourselves constantly stimulated by new images or ideas.
I recently came across a blog post by a mom who did a little experiment. Sitting on the floor near her toddlers she merely recorded a mark on paper every time one of them looked at her while they played quietly by themselves. She was shocked to realize that her children looked at her for eye contact dozens of times in just a few minutes. If she had been using this quiet play time to surf on her tablet like she usually did, she would have missed all these opportunities to actually connect with her children right in front of her. They weren’t looking at her because they wanted something, they just needed to make eye contact and to see her looking back. This is actually the most important way you can encourage your child’s ability to make deep connections and develop a healthy sense of security.
Even in the case of older children, it’s all too easy to find yourself scrolling through your emails while they are trying to tell you about their day, or answering a phone call in the middle of what might be an important conversation for your child. Take a moment to examine your own behaviours and think about how you can set some limits for yourself. Make an effort to model the kind of attentiveness you want them to copy at school, at work, in their future relationships.
Some authors suggest a “special time” that you spend with each child, even if it is just a few minutes in the morning before school or in the evening before bedtime. This is normally 5-30 minutes (decided in advance and timed, so everyone knows what to expect) during which you give your undivided attention to your child, preferably doing whatever he or she would most like to do with you during that time. No TV, no tablet, no cellphone. With such a routine in place, your child will be able to relax and will learn that mom and dad are always there for me, but they sometimes need their own “special time”, too!