Pay Attention! How Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child Stay Focused
Last week, I brushed my teeth with sunscreen. I had my reasons. The sunscreen tube is the same shape as the toothpaste tube. The stuff squeezes out thick, like toothpaste. It was in the top drawer, where the toothpaste is kept. And my mind was on other, far more important things. So I grabbed the tube, squeezed out the goop, and started brushing. My mind quickly rejoined my body the instant my taste buds were assaulted with sunscreen.
Stuff like this happens when we don’t pay attention. Maybe you’ve never brushed your teeth with sunscreen, but I bet you’ve had the experience of your body engaging in actions while your mind was elsewhere. Perhaps you’ve read this far only to realize that while your eyes scanned all the words, your mind didn’t process their meaning (I forgive you).
In fact, the wandering mind is engaging in a particular type of attention, as is the focused one. Both are essential to getting us safely and wisely through life. We can actually train ourselves to maximize the benefits of each through enjoyable processes that can become treasured parts of our day and make us more effective, too. Teaching your child how to visit and dwell in both domains of attention is an important foundation you can provide as part of Strength-Based Parenting.
The Two Types of Attention
Where and how we place our attention, really boils down to two types of applied attention. At any given moment, we are engaged in one of them, and we constantly toggle between them:
1. Directed Attention
Directed attention is the process of deliberately and consciously focusing the mind on something. It’s “top-down,” as if your brain is acting as a company CEO, directing the workers (your neurons) to get busy on a task: OK, time to fold the laundry/make school lunches/drive to work/write that memo/make that call, etc.
You can think of directed attention as being made up of two dimensions: direction and maintenance, which I call “aim and sustain.” Directing or aiming our attention helps us focus on a specific task, idea, or challenge. Maintaining or sustaining our attention allows us to stay focused on it.
Directed attention involves effort. It’s all about screening out other input that could be distracting—like paying attention to doing homework even though the TV is on in the background. Or making sure we brush our teeth with toothpaste even when we’ve got a lot on our mind.
2. Free-Form Attention
It might seem counterintuitive, but attention is also built through rest. I’m talking about times when the mind simply wanders, without a fixed agenda. In contrast to the top-down nature of directed attention, free-form attention is undirected and bottom-up: insights, ideas, and solutions bubble up from the depths of the wandering mind in a fascinating process that has captivated spiritualists and scientists and still mystifies us all.
Our mind needs this state the way our body needs sleep: for restoration and renewal. It happens when we give ourselves what we think of as “downtime” or find ourselves in a state of flow. Strength-based parents know their kids need this time, and they build downtime into their child’s life despite social pressure to hop on the overscheduling bandwagon.
Strength-based parents build downtime into their child’s life despite social pressure to hop on the overscheduling bandwagon.
Now that you know the two main types of attention, we’ll take a deeper dive into each and what they mean for Strength-Based Parenting...
Let’s Get Real About Attention
Here’s the truth: We’re not very good at paying attention. Adults max out at somewhere between 20 to 35 minutes (I couldn’t write this without thinking about checking my e-mail, remembering something we need from the grocery store, and being distracted by thoughts of a work project). Yet we expect hours of sustained attention from ourselves, and too often we expect far more than our kids can deliver.
You may be saying, “I can sit at my desk working for an entire morning.” I know you’re not lying. But it isn’t true. You probably do sit for hours and work hard, but you, like me, are thinking about e-mails, to-do lists, weekend plans, errands, bills due, and so on.
Here’s the truth: We’re not very good at paying attention. Yet we expect hours of sustained attention from ourselves, and too often we expect far more than our kids can deliver.
We start out focused, but then after nine minutes or so, our vigilance declines and our attention shifts, if only briefly, elsewhere before we aim it back on task again. Rather than focusing for hours, we’re actually constantly re-aiming and re-sustaining our attention.
When we ask our kids to pay directed attention, we’re asking them to narrow and aim their field of attention to one thing. Then, we’re asking them to sustain their attention on that one thing and not get distracted by anything else. That’s not so easy for us to do, so we need to ease up on our expectations of our kids.
Research results vary and there are potentially large differences between individuals, but here are a few ground rules and a reality check about human attention capacity:
Young children, perhaps not surprisingly, aren’t skilled at aiming and sustaining attention. Most three-year-olds can hold focused attention for approximately three to five minutes.
Between ages six and 12 there’s a developmental spurt, and a child can sustain focus for about 10 minutes.
At around age 15, there’s another spurt in attention-aiming capacity thanks to brain growth and increased myelination—the insulating coating on our neurons that facilitates speedy transmission. That puts us at around the 20-35 minute mark for sustained attention.
After that, our attentional ability levels off, so our ability as adults to aim attention isn’t much better than when we were teenagers.
This last point may seem pathetic to us today, but there’s an evolutionary reason for it. Out on the savannah, it wouldn’t have been safe to get engrossed in something for hours because then we wouldn’t have been flicking our attention around to see if there’s a predator about to attack us.
Attention Training Without Tears? (Strength-Based Parenting to the Rescue)
How many of your frustrations and conflicts with your children come from their lack of attention? As I hope the section above shows, none of us has the corner on attention. But focusing on your child’s strengths fosters the positive, engaged mood that enhances attention.
When we direct our child toward developing a core strength or a growth strength, we’re helping her aim her attention. Sustaining attention enables our child to stay engaged in the activities that help her grow her strengths—or constructively address her weaknesses—such as effort, practice, problem solving, and the like.
Focusing on your child’s strengths fosters the positive, engaged mood that enhances attention.
Although children are born with a genetic predisposition for their strengths, it’s only through sustained practice, which requires sustained attention, that their strengths will reach full potential. Helping your child exert directed attention helps him aim his attention on his strengths instead of veering into fixation on his weaknesses, as our evolutionary wiring predisposes us to do. It helps him tap his inborn strengths when addressing weaknesses. And it will help him sustain these efforts for longer periods of time.
Strength-Based Parenting improves your attentional capacity, too. As you practice the Strength Switch—more on that here—you’ll notice it gets easier to shift your attention away from your child’s weaknesses and toward her strengths, and to model that shift to your child. She, too, will find it easier see and act from her strengths. In all of these ways, directed attention both builds and is built by Strength-Based Parenting.
"But my child has ADHD..."
I’m often asked if Strength-Based Parenting can help kids with attentional challenges. What I can say is that, by helping the parent to focus on what the child does well, Strength-Based Parenting creates a more positive, supportive parent-child relationship. That means less tension and frustration for both parent and child around the attention lapses. When the attentional problems no longer become the defining element for the child’s identity or of the parent-child relationship, this frees up room for the child’s strengths to take center stage.
Research on positive parenting with children who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) shows that while it doesn’t change their deficit disorder, it does improve their behavior. ADHD children whose parents use praise, positive emotions, physical affection, and positive engagement as regular features of their parenting have fewer conduct problems, fewer mood issues, fewer sociability problems, and less hyperactivity. The researchers haven’t framed these positive parenting practices as Strength-Based Parenting, but I would.
Whether or not your child has these kinds of issues, if you know her strengths, you’ll be better able to help her pay attention because you can more carefully calibrate the match between a particular task and her strengths. If a task is too easy or too hard, our mind wanders. Positive emotions, confidence levels about the task, interest in the task, and enjoyment of the task also affect the ability to aim and sustain attention. Knowing your child’s strengths improves your insight into what will satisfy those criteria, and where she may struggle and need more breaks, downtime, or support from you.
How This Plays Out in My House
A common scene of frustration in my household at the moment is encouraging nine-year-old Emily to put on her shoes before we go to school. The scene goes something like this: I let Emily know that Matt will be taking her to school in five minutes and ask her to please put her shoes on. Emily is an agreeable girl and says yes—but more often than not, no shoes are put on. It’s not unusual for this scene to end with me raising my voice and Emily still barefooted, looking totally confused about why I’ve become so frustrated. After all, she said yes—and she fully intended to follow through.
When Emily says she’s going to put her shoes on, she genuinely means it, but in the blink of an eye, her attention shifts elsewhere, and she promptly forgets about her shoes. With Strength-Based Parenting, we can transform these moments of frustration into opportunities for attention training.
The first shift of attention has to be mine as the parent: I use the Strength Switch to flip my attention from frustration to seeing the opportunity to help Emily pay attention. The shoe request then becomes a moment for me to tap into her strengths of adherence, cooperation, and service, helping her stay focused on her task by connecting with her genuine desire to please me by doing what I ask. My request goes from “Em, can you please put your shoes on?” to “OK, Emmy-Bemmy, now’s the time to show me how strong your attention muscle is getting by putting your shoes on without getting distracted. Do you think you can do that? How about we have some fun and I’ll time how fast you can do it?”
Beyond that, it doesn’t require anything more complicated than turning off the TV and staying near her to keep her focused. Each time she aims and sustains her attention on the shoes long enough to get them on, she’s developing her capacity for attention. Soon enough, I’ll be able to ask “Em, can you please put your shoes on?” and she’ll do it because her attention span has grown.
With Strength-Based Parenting, we can transform moments of frustration into opportunities for attention training.
When your child engages in activities requiring dedicated focus like sports training or chess practice, these are actually forms of attention training. He’s not only building his athletic or thinking skills; he’s also developing his capacity to sustain attention on a task—a core skill needed for strengths development.
EXERCISE: Activities for Attention Building
Think about the many activities your child does on a given day. Probably many can be used to build her attentional skills and, thus, support strength development. It’s a matter of reframing the activity from struggle to opportunity. Just ask yourself these questions:
1. What is the strength that can be built here?
2. What should the expectations be?
3. How can I reframe this activity for my child in a way that makes it clear how it plays to her strengths?
4. How can I help my child use her strengths to complete the activity and better aim and sustain her attention?
5. If the activity calls for a growth strength, learned behavior, or a weakness, how can I support my child’s process?
Read more by Lea... How to Spot Your Child's Strengths (These 3 Indicators Can Help!)
This post includes excerpts from Lea Waters’s book “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish" which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here.
To learn more about Strength-Based Parenting visit: www.StrengthSwitch.com.
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Photo credits (in order of appearance): Dvir Adler, Caleb Woods, Janko Ferlic, Fernando Venzano, London Scout, Daniela Rey, Mark Jefferson Paraan, and Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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