When my son was a frisky four-year old, with an older sister and a baby sister, he often got into trouble for hitting. As a mom and a psychologist, I know that one of the best ways to handle misbehavior is to teach kids positive ways to ask for what they need. So, I made him a little booklet out of index cards, stapled together, showing lots of kind and creative ways to get my attention. My son loved it, and it definitely helped. This little booklet, which enhanced the peace in our home, was the basis for What About Me?
What About Me? actually works on two levels: For children, it’s a how-to book that teaches them important social-emotional skills. It empathizes with children’s frustrations and helps them to feel capable, by offering them choices rather than “shoulds.”
For parents, it’s a gentle reminder to catch our children “being good” and respond warmly to their positive bids for attention. I truly believe this book can help a lot of families.
Children need a lot of attention, but more isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes kids get too much of the wrong kind of attention–when they’re overscheduled, when they get yelled at or criticized too often, or when adults take over activities that kids can or want to do on their own. Kids need to interact with caring adults, but they also need undemanding “hang-out” time, when parents are physically present and available, but kids are doing their own thing. Different children at different times may need more or less attention.
I think the issue is not really HOW MUCH attention parents give but rather HOW RESPONSIVE parents are. When our children try to connect with us, how do we react?
Every day we have a thousand opportunities to turn towards our children or away. When we stop what we’re doing to look at a block tower, when we zip a coat with gentleness rather than impatience, when we go to the trouble of cutting a sandwich the “right” way, or take the extra time to let them put the money in the parking meter, even though we could do it faster ourselves, we build connection.
Of course, it’s impossible to be perfectly responsive, but these little acts of turning towards our children rather than away are what build intimacy. Showing interest in their interests, recognizing and acknowledging their feelings…these are powerful ways to tell our children, “I see you, and I love you.”