How Much Attention is Enough?

Q. You've repeatedly said children don't need a lot of attention, that too much is addicting and that families should be adult-centered. How much attention is too much?

A. There is no formula. Suffice it to say it is high during infancy and toddlerhood and diminishes significantly and steadily thereafter. Dr. Burton White, America's most respected authority on early development and author of "The First Three Years of Life," (Prentice Hall Press) has said the single most significant sign of healthy development in the 3-year-old is the ability to be self-occupied, without making unnecessary requests for adult attention, for long periods of time.

During the first 18 months of life, a period of all but complete helplessness, it is essential that the child be the center of parental attention. From 18 to 30 months or so, one notices the child wanting lots of attention one minute and complete autonomy the next. If parents are appropriately responsive, patient and authoritative, the conflict between wanting to prolong dependency or strive for independence is resolved by age 3. A 3-year-old who has received too much parental attention will continue to demand high levels of it. A 3-year-old who has not received enough will probably be depressed.

By this time, it is essential that the center of attention in the family shift from child to parents.

The tendency among middle- and upper-middle-class parents in our culture is to give children too much attention. This springs from the falsehood that self-esteem is a function of how much positive attention one gets from one's parents, and more specifically, one's so-called "primary" (synonymous with "female") parent. We have assigned primarily to women, therefore, the task of providing for their children's self-esteem. According to this myth- system, the more attention the mother pays her child, the better mother she is. A decision to engage in any other activity - occupational, recreational, social - which takes her away from being able to give attention to her children is a decision she makes at her children's expense. When she returns to her children, therefore, she is at obligation to make up for her absence.

The children are "stuck" at the center of their families; the children are demanding, disrespectful and unappreciative.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, we need to keep in mind that there's a time for giving attention, and a time for expecting it. If you give too much, you'll get too little in return.

Copyright 1992, John K. Rosemond

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