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The Epic Attention Spans of Children

September 16, 2010

Since becoming a person with young folks in my life, I have heard so very many times that children lack attention, that they have poor attention, and short attention spans. I find it utterly, totally, completely and absolutely baffling. Truly mind-boggling. I have never seen anyone focus the way young people focus. I have never watched any adult give such immense attention to such a variety of topics, activities, people, and interests as children do. And it is not that my children are special. Other young people I know are this way, too. It is natural: a toddler scooping handful after tiny handful of sand into a broken bucket, a baby playing peek-a-boo like it’s his first time ever (it’s not), a one-year-old licking a mirror (no kidding) and studying her reflection, a child hammering nails into a log, unscrewing dozens of screws to take apart an old computer, creating her own step-by-step instructions for how to draw a phoenix, cooking soup for the whole family, washing rocks found at a stream, cutting a hunk of clay into small pieces, telling a story, planning a party, watching a spider eat a bug, and playing chess. Their focus is ASTOUNDING.

I have found out, since becoming a mama, that my attention span is sickly and weak. I get bored easily. I would often rather wash dishes than play, which is saying something because I don’t at all like washing dishes. I have my own interests that keep me focused, like crocheting and writing and reading, but with my children’s interests, I hear whiny voices inside my head:

“Get me away from these small plastic animals and their complex imagined worlds!”

“You’ve made up a language I do not understand. Why do you want to torture meeeee?!”

“They’re just ants in the yard. I don’t care if they like popsicle drippings or cookie crumbs best. You can sit here for the next hour. I refuse!”

“I do not like Monopoly. In fact, I have hated Monopoly since I was a small child. Make it stop!”

And other such indelicate things I do actually not say to the young people in my life. I try and try and try again to focus on what is important to them. I succeed sometimes and fail majestically in a ball of mamaflames at other times. But I do keep trying. I want them to know that I respect what they are interested in, that I value what they value, that I respect their creative urges, their curious investigations, their songs, their stories, their observations, their drawings, their dreams, their prayers, their thoughts on God, snails, and the chocolate cake that will be made in 10 months at their next birthday. I do care. And if I don’t act like I care, they won’t know it. On top of all this, playing with kids is this Golden Ticket into their secret minds. I hear amazing, enlightening things when I play with them. I hear their fears and things that are too hard to say out loud in normal life. I hear that they’re wondering about what other people do (hunting and going to school, for instance). I get to watch them say short-tempered things to their toys that somebody (um, me) said to them yesterday. And then I think how lucky I am that my kids LET me play with them, despite my poor attention span. They ask me daily, they have not given up, and their hope and faith is touching.

I will not pretend that kids always make it easy. No. They want to win, they want to make the rules, they want to be king, they want to catch the beast, they want to feel powerful. This makes sense, without a doubt. They live in a world where adults rule. Playing is their kingdom. If I go into their world asserting my power, how disrespectful is that? They deserve a place where the grownup is not strongest or wisest or smartest. A place where their creativity is most powerful. A place where they can fool me even when I declare “I’m an adult! No one can fool me!” and I let them trick me again and again and am shocked and appalled every time. A place where I put all my strength (not really, though) into being Queen of the Couch and every time they find a way to roll and shove me to the floor. A place where I’m the goofy villager being attacked by wild foxes and tigers while I attempt to fold invisible laundry. These aren’t really just games, not the way we adults think of games. These are ESSENTIAL and VITAL and IMMEASURABLE USEFUL, if you wanna get all serious about it. They’re also really, really fun when you get into them and stop thinking about adult responsibilities and things that need to get done today.

So when people say to me that children have short attention spans, I do not blow my fuse. I am an adult. I seethe instead. And I say laughingly, “Oh, I always hear that, but kids can play the same game for three hours straight without stopping. It’s the adults who wander off after three minutes.” They agree, sort of, as if I’m the first person who’s ever said this out loud (which I can’t be, right?), and deep down they know it’s true. We struggle to focus on the kids in our lives. We know how hard it is to hold a sustained interest in something that is not our main object of affection. The thing is… the game isn’t the object of our affection, but our children ARE.

And because I love reading, I have two books to recommend. The first is called Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. This book is simply amazing. If you think any of this post has truth in it, you’ll love this book. I give it as often as I can to new parents because it is such a powerful tool in understanding and building connections with young people. It’s a gem. The second book is called Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and this book, in my mind, goes together absolutely perfectly with the first. The title explains the subject of the book, but inside is rich with information about keeping young people anchored to family and adults in a culture that tells us we should let our kids go as soon as possible, both because it’s good for them to be on their own (hogwash) and because then we can get back to the business of being unhindered adults (which is of course tempting, but not why we chose to become parents, riiiiiight?).

So, now that you’ve read this… go find a kid to play with and DON’T BE THE ADULT. Have some fun instead…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Allumer permalink
    September 16, 2010 5:02 pm

    I think adults say that children have short attention spans because children don’t pay attention to the things adults want them to. It’s simply a matter of making something up to explain why you don’t like something about someone or some group.

    I too, loathe Monopoly from the bottom of my soul.

  2. September 16, 2010 5:35 pm

    i totally agree. i left that point out (and others) to not make this post into a thesis…. lol. but thanks for pointing it out. it’s pretty hypocritical of a group to say someone’s got a poor attention span simply because they aren’t interested in what we want to show/tell/do/say to them.

  3. September 16, 2010 6:13 pm

    I love Monopoly. But…in an effort to save my brain, I’m trying to unlearn how to multitask and learn to do things with single-mindedness and patience and focus. This post spoke to me so much because I think part of growing up is being told that you MUST automatically focus on what someone else (society, your boss, your teacher) tells you is important, you must absorb a lot of information at once, you must multitask, you must, in effect, give up this childlike ability to be so intensely focused on one thing at a time. But I think children’s approaches are much better for our mental health. There are forty year old corporate geniuses trying to learn to be like children in this way again and detach from their Blackberries. This is one of the most difficult teachings of Buddhism to absorb. But kids have it down already. It’s amazing.

    • September 16, 2010 6:52 pm

      Don’t you think it’s one of those things we’re born knowing, that’s a part of our fitrah, until socialisation and formal education kicks in and kicks out all of the inbuilt mechanisms? It’s like shampoo and hair (which Allumer blogged about on her blog, somebody please insert the link) – did you know hair self-cleans? But we live fast, so we shampoo and stuff. But it really does know how to clean itself. And kids really do know how to learn without being taught, and so on and so on.

      I have to go back to the fish, now XD

  4. September 17, 2010 2:22 am

    what fish??

    noor, i giggle to think of men in suits trying to remember how to be like kids. i think it’s much better to retain it than to try to remember it! what exactly is the teaching in buddhism you mentioned? i’m so curious.

    saya, i do think it’s taught out of us. when my oldest was maybe 1-1/2 i used to take her to this indoor playgym thing where they’d sing songs and have little games and activities. the first round was okay, but the second session had this teacher who would move on so fast. she’d actually be taking stuff out of my daughter’s hands in order to put it away to do the next activity. i was SO disturbed! i thought, “thanks! you’re teaching my kid to have ADD!” i realized then that we do this in so many ways—we rush kids on to the next thing, either out of our own boredom, our packed schedules, or thinking that what they’re doing isn’t worth doing. i still struggle with this, daily. i’m not a huge fan of montessori methods, but i don’t know much about them. the one thing i love is the idea that kids should be allowed to concentrate totally and fully. basically, hush yourself so they can do what they do.

    john holt wrote a rockin’ book called Learning All The Time (see i can use capitals!) all about how kids learn without being taught. it’s fabulous.

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