WARNING: this article has some tough love.
The first part will take some misguided blame off your shoulders.
But, the second part will surprise you.
It may also make you feel silly and perhaps a tad guilty about some of the things you may be doing as a parent/caregiver.
But, don’t lose heart.
Part 2 of this series will give you precise instructions on how to earn your child’s full and whole-hearted attention, more quickly and with greater ease — based on common sense, irrefutable science and 25 years of experience working with kids.
So, now, if you are struggling to get your child to turn away from their device and actually look you in the eye, you are not alone.
It doesn’t matter if they are 5 years old or 35 and living in your basement.
Either way, “It’s not your fault.”
And, “Yes, there is something you can do about it.”
But, let’s back up a step.
Was it always this damn hard to get our kids’ attention?
Yes and no.
Kids and parents are naturally in opposition.
Whether you like it or not — being the response-able adult in the room who decided to grow life — you have a job.
I would argue it is the most complex, exhausting and rewarding of jobs.
Your job is to nurture and support your kid(s) while also pushing them to grow.
Our kids — on the other hand — made no such agreement.
They are ruled by their own self-directed instincts and desires.
See the natural conflict?
Now, I have not traveled back in time — and history is always a subjective report — but evidence points to it always being hard for adults to get and hold the attention and respect of kids.
"When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint." (Hesiod, 8th century BC).
All that being said, there is something quite recent which makes our job as parents many times harder than ever before.
Why it is so much harder now!
So, you try to get this being who depends on you for practically everything to give you a moment of attention and a shred of respect.
You call their name, politely.
But, they don’t respond.
Instead, they have turned into what I call a Screen Zombie!
If this has happened to you — repeatedly — it is literally not your fault, nor are you alone.
Here is who you can blame for that: it’s a real world thing dubbed the “attention economy.”
The Attention Economy is a trillion dollar industry employing some of the most clever marketers, engineers and psychologists on the planet.
Their only job has been to figure out how to get our attention so that they can make more money.
In case you didn’t know it — yet — the Attention Economy is ruled by this maxim:
Attention = Money
We could explore what can be done about this massive force of influence on our lives, but that is a rabbit hole, which is future based and dependent on large scale social change.
And you need your child or teen’s undivided attention… this morning, or better yet, you needed it yesterday!
So, let’s zoom into the much smaller realm — which psychologists call our circle of influence or locus of control — wherein you have maximum ability to influence whether you child is able and willing to give you their full attention.
The small green circle of influence might seem to imply that we can and should just control our kids and teens. Take away their digital devices. Set ourselves as boss of the household.
But, getting our kids to want to give us their attention will not come from any of our attempts to control them.
I take to heart what Terry Crews says about relationships:
“We can’t control other people and love them at the same time.”
In fact, we all hate it when someone tries to control us. Trying to control our kids effectively trains them to avoid and turn away from us every chance they get.
So, where does that leaves us?
If you look at all the factors that affect attention — diet, sleep, desire, our wiring, rewards and consequences as largest contributors — there is only one area which we have the ability to change, any where and any time.
It is our own behavior.
We actually have maximum power over what we do as parents: how we act, model and respond to our kids.
That is why I adopted the following motto as a parent:
“I commit to becoming the change
I wish to see in my family.”
This might look cool to print on a T-shirt or put on Instagram, but the reality is that such an attitude begets an ass kicking and never-ending learning process.
With that in mind, how do we actually behave when we want and “need” our kids' attention?
From what I have seen in my 25 years working with families — and to be honest in myself as a parent when my fuse is short — we do many things that make it much harder than it needs to be!
Below is a list of the most common tactics I see that as parents we use which make it nearly impossible to get our kids to want to give us their full attention.
The TOP 10 (and a half) ways we“TRY” and FAIL to get attention from our kids.
Telling them they “must” and “should” do it “because”!
Taking a long time to “adult-splain” things.
3. Raising your voice
Maybe if you get louder and more intense they will listen!
Repeating yourself ad naeseum to wear them down.
5. Throwing a tantrum
Yes, some adults do this. I’m sure you had your moments also!
Explaining “why” they should listen to and respect you.
Promise them something they want if they sit, listen and obey, like a good little doggie.
Often a last resort — make them feel bad about themselves. Not one parents are proud of but still common in schools and kitchen tables all across the world.
9. Giving “Consequences”
Adult code word for punishing you. This one is another nuclear option which just makes them hate you while also birthing your own homegrown resistance movement.
10. Spinning plates to be more engaging
My biggest trap. You work your bootie off trying to entertain, cajole and basically compete with everything else vying for their scarce attention.
BONUS — 10.5: Questioning WHY?
Classic interrogation technique. Keep blasting them to tell you “why” even though you don’t know what to say in response even if they were able to tell you (which they often can’t!).
If you have not done any of the above tactics yourself as a parent, you must be a saint or a liar.
The problem with each item on this list is not that these “techniques” don’t work very well or at all, but that they work sometimes and in limited ways.
When they do work, it is always as a win-lose equation.
Just like this slot machine…
Both may eventually get you some of what you want, but at a great cost!
And so, as Einstein once said…
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Before you can begin to learn what does work, you will need to understand why we all use these flawed tactics in the first place.
The real danger is that many of these behaviours are extremely seductive.
Often, it’s all we know. It’s what we learned from adults growing up and all that we see around us.
In the absence of knowing any better, we do what has been done to us and what everyone else is doing around us.
Even though you know these tactics don’t work well, you may still find yourself doing them “automagically”, as if in a trance.
So, let’s break the spell then, shall we?
To do so, we need to get to the bottom of why we suck at getting our kid’s attention.
The reason we use the same flawed tactics over and over again is not due to our being a little thick or insane, but because there is a certain pervasive mindset which I have seen nearly every parent develop, which I call…
The Parental Entitlement Delusion:
The “Parental Entitlement Delusion” (PED) is this insane yet highly common belief that your child — whether they be 2 or 42 years old — should just drop everything and respond to you, at the moment you want them to.
Here’s the truth bomb flying overhead and about to land nearby…
“You’re child does NOT owe you
their full attention and respect.”
You read that right.
You might want to read it again in a different font…
“You’re child does NOT owe you their full attention and respect.”
If you doubt the truth of this statement, think about yourself around other self-directed adults, for a moment.
Imagine how silly it would be to grab a stranger on the street, demand that they stop whatever they were doing and insist that they pay complete attention to you, all the while showing you total deference and respect.
It’s ludicrous, isn’t it?
Lets consider how I wrote this article that you are reading, right now.
Do you owe me your full attention and respect… ahem… right now!?
No. You don’t, actually.
If anything, you may still be reading along and humouring me only because I have been doing something to earn your attention all along.
Before you think I am being just a super obvious or maybe too harsh with parents, I need to confess.
I used to insist that my wife do it. I was under the spell of S.E.D. (Spousal Entitlement Delusion). After many stupid fights which led to a lot of me sleeping on the couch, I learned the folly of my ways.
Hey, I get it! If anyone has a right to feel entitled, it’s parents!
Remember, we have the hardest (most complex and exhaustive) job on the planet, entrusted with the health, safety, growth and spiritual well-being of our kids who start off entirely dependent and helpless and grow to become more defiant and demanding with age!
On top of all that, we live together 24/7 as roommates sharing space where we do all or most of the work.
We damn well have a right to feel like we deserve their attention and respect, no?
Ugh. No. We don’t.
If you know other parents who agree with this delusion of expecting our kids to listen and respect us on command, it’s only because you are under a shared state of psychosis.
We need to drop this insane belief to do what comes next and succeed!
The hard yet liberating truth…
Sure, you can trick your child (or teen) to give you their fleeting and divided attention.
You can coerce or bribe them into momentary compliance.
You can instill fear.
You can inflame their anger to get a reaction, right NOW!
But, the foundation of any healthy relationship that lasts the test of time is that we all have to find ways to EARN one another’s attention and respect.
“How do I get them to pay attention…
…to what they’re supposed to be doing…
…and show respect to…
to me… to their teacher…whoever matters?
This is THE #1 question I get all of the time, from busy parents and caring adults tasked with herding and engaging kids and teens.
It’s also a question I struggled to answer myself for the first 10 of my 25 years working with kids and families.
Knowing how to get your child’s total attention and respect is an essential life skill.
It’s a SKILL you can learn!
No matter how many times you have failed or what you believe about yourself or your child(ren), you can learn it, and very quickly — if you are willing to let go of the Parental Entitlement Delusion.
To find out what the actual skill that I teach and use with hundreds of kids with ADHD and my own daughter who has plenty of reasons to not pay attention to me, you can go read Part 2 of the “POWER of ATTENTION” series entitled…
How To “Earn” Your Child’s Total Attention — When You Need It The Most!
The only question left is…
Are you going to learn about HOW to get your child’s full attention, right now…?
B e kind of stubborn and continue doing what you have been doing as a parent — feeling annoyed and getting limited results …?
No need to sit there pondering this all alone.
Come and join hundreds of parents who have learned the skill that opens the door to full attention.
Read part 2 of this series, here on Medium, now.