‘Our attention is the fuel that runs our kids’ lives’

Riddle me this: When is a punishment a reward? Often.

That’s what negative attention is all about. Supper’ is over. Mom’s rushing out to a meeting. Kiss-hug. Kiss-hug. She’s gone. Dad’ is left with Billy and Sally to clear the table, do the dishes and get homework done. Dad rallies the troops – “OK, you guys clear and I’ll wash!” Great plan.

Billy puts the ketchup back in the refrigerator and starts to gather up his dishes. Sally stays in her seat, pushes her dishes aside, puts her head down and pouts.

“Dad! Sally’s not helping!”

(Tattling is a different issue. This very wise father calmly replies,

“Thanks, Billy. Who are you in charge of?” Billy’s heard this one too many times before and knows the answer – “Just me, but …” “No ‘buts’ Bill. You take care of you and I’ll take care of you and your sister.”)

So, there they are. Dad at the sink. Billy clearing the table. Sally moping. Who gets Dad’s attention?

Billy should. A parent’s attention is a reward. It’s the emotional fuel that powers self-esteem. Like any reward, it encourages the child to repeat the behavior that earned it more often. Billy is doing what he’s told. He responded promptly to Dad’s request. If dad wants to encourage this behavior, he should reward it at least with a “thanks” and a pat on the back, a high five or a fist bump. For younger, less mature children, the reward may need to be more concrete and tangible. A sticker on a success chart. A poker chip in the family’s token economy. A discreet, pre-determined reward for cleaning the table at supper like the opportunity to have dessert.

But it’s Sally who gets Dad’s attention. All too often, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. In fact, Billy earns a distracted “Thanks, buddy” at best.

His easy-going, agreeable compliance is taken for granted. Dad puts aside his dish towel and spends the next 15 minutes empathizing with Sally (“I know you feel sad when Mommy goes out at night, but she always comes back.”) and cajoling Sally (“I bet you forgot where the mustard goes, huh?”)and enticing Sally (“It’s not too late to get your ‘dishes’ sticker on the chart for today, but you better hurry!”) and even threatening her (“This is your job, sweetie. If you don’t do it then there’s no stories at bedtime tonight.”).

Some of these responses are better than others. Positive, supportive responses are always more effective in the long run, even if threats and physical measures may appear more effective in the moment. Dad’s insight (“She misses her Mom,” he thinks to himself) and willingness to offer Sally support is admirable, especially at the end of a long day when everyone’s patience is worn thin. Dad’s mistake, however, has less to do with his choice of words than with how he’s allocating his attention.

Our attention is the fuel that runs our kids’ lives. It’s more important than the AAA batteries that keeps all those gadgets blinking and chirping. It’s more important than the gasoline that keeps your car going or the sunlight that nurtures a flower. Think of your attention like the invisible signal that makes your cellphone connect. How often have you changed positions or held your phone over your head or driven down the street to get more bars? How isolated and adrift do you feel when you have no signal? How often have you cursed when you’ve lost a signal and dropped a call no matter how loud your carrier promises the best coverage in the universe? Our kids do far more to get our attention.

To connect.

When Dad puts down his dish towel, leaves the dirty dishes in the sink and walks over to Sally at the table, he is implicitly rewarding her pouty, sad and defiant behavior. True, a kiss on the back of the head might be all that she needs to manages her separation anxiety in mom’s absence, but it’s a risk. The message could be that non-compliance wins Dad’s attention. The result? Not only does Sally continue to mope and pout, Billy sees what’s happening, too. He gets mad. His natural sibling rivalry is stoked and he may make different choices himself next time Dad asks him to clear the table.

Negative attention motivates negative behavior in many circumstances. Consider another familiar dilemma: Tommy won’t sit still in circle time and disrupts the preschool group so Miss Sally excuses him to sit with her co-teacher apart from the group. This means that Tommy can’t get a gold star on the class chart or be the day’s weatherman, but he gets an adult’s undivided attention. When Tommy’s behavior persists, the teachers start thinking attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and wondering about medication. Conferences are held. Evaluations are completed. Of course, Tommy might have some diagnosable difference, but it’s the negative attention that’s fueling this particular behavior.

George misbehaves in seventh grade math class again. His teacher sends him to the vice principal, again. The vice principal calls Mom and Dad to come in for a meeting with George. There they are, three adults disappointed and scolding a 13 year old, making him promise to behave in class, and all Georgie is thinking is “How cool it is that Mom and Dad are back together again. They’re actually agreeing on something!” What happens tomorrow? Georgie misbehaves again. What’s more important to him? Threats of detention, suspension and expulsion or his parents’ mutual and undivided attention, even if its negative?

But wait. If our attention to negative behavior has the paradoxical effect of actually increasing the undesirable behavior, then what are we to do?

Just ignore it?

Yes. In fact, as long as there is no risk to anyone’s safety, it is often better to respond to negative behavior by withdrawing attention. By not reinforcing it with attention. By ignoring it.

Dad probably should have kept at the dishes, loudly praising Billy’s successes (“Hey, I really appreciate all your help Billy. Thanks a lot!”).

He might have offered Sally one calm reminder (“I’m waiting for you, sweetie.”) and – if this is a battle that he thinks is worth fighting, he might have offered one subsequent limit (“No TV until you put your dishes in the sink, sweetie.”). Both statements must be calm and matter-of-fact and offered from across the room.

What should Miss Sally do differently? Tommy’s misbehavior can’t be ignored. If she understands that this preschooler is craving attention, rather than exile him to another teacher’s care, she could consider giving him an attention-winning role in the group or making a special arrangement that he can earn five minutes alone with her after circle time if he can behave during circle time. Failing this, if Tommy must be removed and closely supervised, the co-teacher at his side must be careful to give him her attention only when he behaves appropriately.

George’s situation is harder. His misbehavior is being negatively reinforced not just by attention, but by the experience of his divorced parents’ cooperation. If the astute, sensitive and observant vice principal picks this up, he might be able to turn it around by arranging for George to earn a celebration with both parents for a week of successes in class. More likely, however, this middle school student’s age and the complexity of his feelings and the associated family dynamics calls for the school counselor’s or a therapist’s assistance.

And if Sally just got up and walked away or, worse, knocked her dishes to the floor and ran off? What if Tommy continued to disrupt the class from across the room? And what if 13-year-old George’s’ defiance began to pop up in other classes besides math?

Understanding and anticipating the way in which negative attention can inadvertently fuel a child’s misbehavior is only one part of the larger parenting equation. Start by carefully considering how your behavior may be contributing to the problem, before moving on to that long list of closely related parenting considerations:

– Is this a battle I want to fight or should I just let it go?

– How do my co-parents respond to this behavior? What works or fails for them?

– Am I calm enough to react in a reasonable way or am I letting my buttons get pushed?

– Am I prepared to follow through with the punishment I’m considering?

– Even if I succeed in teaching my son (daughter) that his behavior is unacceptable, how will he learn better choices so that he can succeed next time?

Parenting pointer

Beware of the good-cop, bad-cop parenting dilemma. Co-parents who don”t agree about parenting practices are at high risk of becoming polarized within the family system regardless of marital status.

When one parent takes a more heavy handed approach, picking more battles, providing more punishments and stuck in a loop of negative attention fueling more unacceptable behavior, the other parent sometimes becomes more lenient. More rewarding. Even subtly dismissing his or her co-parent as “too tough” or “just having a bad day.” This kind of split divides the parenting team and fuels a child’s insecurity.

Think of it like this: If you and your co-parent were side by side in a row boat, you”d have to coordinate your efforts to get back to shore. If you think your partner is leaning too far away from you, you might say something (“Hey! Get back in the middle!”) or you might lean out in the opposite direction to balance the boat. Your partner might feel the difference as you lean away and, rather than alerting you (“Hey! Stop that!”), he or she leans further away. On and on it goes until you both fall out and the boat -that is, the kids – float away.

Share this article with your co-parent. Open up a dialogue about your parenting practices. Put aside your adult differences because the kids’ needs always come first.

Might negative attention be part of the problem? Which battles do you each choose to fight? What rewards work and are acceptable? When do you punish and how? Get yourselves securely back in the middle so you can row the boat to shore.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.