There is this thing in our culture that really pisses me off. I try not to be judgmental and all, but this is one of a small number of things that makes my eyebrows knit together and my feet get stompy whenever I hear it. And that is the phenomenon of children being viewed as Evil Attention Seeking Vessels.
How many times have you heard a child's behaviour being described as "just looking for attention?" I know I've heard it about a billion. I've heard it so many times that I didn't think to question it, until I had kids of my own. One of my boys had a medical condition when he was small, where he would sometimes cry so hard he would hold his breath and faint. Blue in the face, deep in sadness, konk, out he would go. Everyone I talk to thinks this was attention seeking behaviour. "Oh, he would do it for attention!" Or to get his way. Or to make us have an emotional reaction. But actually, he was just upset. He would normally get upset and have a little cry, or need some reassurance or distraction, and he would be fine, just like other kids, but sometimes (and some days up to 8 or 9 times) he would get all wrapped up in his upset feelings, forget to breathe, and faint. It's a medical condition. You can check it out here.
Even my counselor said something about him 'wanting attention' when I mentioned it to her recently and I wanted to bite my own eyebrows off in frustration. I think what makes me the MOST frustrated about this cultural belief is that its declaration will expect to somehow negate or erase the legitimacy of a child's need for adult support and responsiveness. If my child is acting a certain way in order to get me to pay attention to him or her, isn't it my job to pay attention to her?
Are they dancing around on the lawn making goofy faces? Awesome.
Are they grabbing the toilet brush and trying to help me by scrubbing the wall? Awesome (but the teeth clenched kind of awesome, you know the one: but the heart is in the right place)
Are they shoving their sibling while I'm cooking dinner or paying attention to someone else? Not so awesome. But a little attention and focus is warranted in order to correct the behaviour.
Does my kid want my attention? Doesn't he deserve it? Don't all children need to feel important and warmly approved of? Doesn't negative behaviour call for a little attention to divert it or nip it off? Doesn't a little love and positive attention make the need for negative behaviour to vie for attention disappear? Hence, the solution for negative attention seeking behaviour is TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE CHILD!?!
The entire "Just doing it for attention" attitude implies that the appropriate adult reaction to such behaviour is to ignore it. Ignore the child or punish them. Because a need for attention is inappropriate and somehow the fault of the child. When really, a need for attention and responsiveness and acceptance by a parent is a basic developmental need and if one of our kids is MISbehaving for attention there is something that needs modifying in the PARENTS' behaviour, not the child's. What is warranted is more attention. More responsiveness. More love. More acceptance. More support. More individual, undivided attention, more eye contact, more active listening, and more physical contact. Or maybe just an evaluation of the child's hierarchy of needs: is s/he hungry? Angry? Lonely? Or tired? Do they need less social stimulation, a redirection of energies, a snack, a distraction, or a book to help calm them down?
Sometimes, I can't pay more attention to my child. Sometimes it is okay for me to ask them to wait, or to fill their need for attention or responsiveness or love some other way. Find your dad. Hug your teddy. Dance for your brother. Wait five minutes. But never is a request for attention "JUST" for attention. It might be solely for attention, but it's not small, inconsequential, silly, or illegitimate. The only thing that's "JUST" about it is the solution. JUST pay attention. JUST love. JUST respond. It's just that simple.