Giving Your Child Enough Effective Attention

attention-please-baby-phone-lAs an Early Childhood educator, I have learned that ATTENTION is a survival need- not a manipulation of adults.

After World War II, orphans living in a clean, hygienic and basically attentive facility did not thrive. In fact, almost half of infants died, despite apparently having all basic needs met. It turned out that the infants needed a meaningful relationship with a caring, and involved adult in order to survive, grow and thrive. Since then, we have learned that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released in a manner directly proportional to the amount of caring attention the child receives.

How many times have you said, “Oh, s/he just wants attention!”


S/he does just want attention and s/he legitimately needs it.

The power of the attention children get is that whatever you pay attention to is a behavior that is reinforced – that is, behavior the adult notices and responds to is more likely to be repeated again than ignored or unnoticed behaviors.

Be honest … when do you give the most attention and the most focused and intense attention?

When children are acting out or showing MIS-behaviors – right? So, each time your child does something you DON’T want to see again, you reinforce the behavior by strongly reacting to it, right?

Oops! Did you ever realize this? I didn’t as a parent. I heard myself yelling,

“How many times have I told you … ?”

Well, the more times I noticed that behavior and responded strongly, the more likely my children were to repeat it. I was a busy mom. I worked, ran the household, had friends, and the easiest people to ignore [at times] and the most annoying [at times] were my little children.

The odd thing, hard for adults to remember is that giving unpleasant or negative attention will NOT eliminate the behavior. Rather, it strengthens it. The intensity of reaction and the reliable immediate response are the most effective in making behavior occur again because – back to the top – children legitimately need attention to survive.

Nature has equipped children to do statistics and a quick analysis of their own experiences. When do they ‘bug’ you most?

When you are on the phone?

When you want to focus on shopping?

When you are chatting with another adult?

Ahhh – yes, when they don’t have your attention.

So, what does this mean? It means that you DO have to give strong focused attention when something has happened that you like and want to see again. Catch them doing what you want! Make meaningful, descriptive statements about their efforts – not outcomes, when they are engaged in constructive, creative, artistic endeavors. Make meaningful descriptive statements about cooperation, about helping others, about being able to spend a few minutes alone without interrupting your phone call.

Create those quality moments or better yet, minutes of just attending to your child or focusing on what s/he wants following WANTED BEHAVIOR.

If you do this consistently for a few days you will begin to see changes. Children want nothing more than your approval. If you show that approval by giving focused and meaningful attention to constructive behaviors, they will repeat those behaviors.

There are a few things happening when you do this. Children are reassured that you ‘see’ them–really see them–and what they are doing. It forces you to pay attention to specifically what they are doing and to think enough about it to make an intelligent comment about it.

The comments help children to think in more complex ways about their activity and capability and may even enlarge their vocabulary. When they get the attention they need, they will give back by lowering the demand that comes out of feelings of neglect.

Notice that I have used the phrase: descriptive feedback above. This is NOT PRAISE!

Saying “Good Job” without saying what you are approving leads to two conclusions by the child:

1) you really are not paying attention, you are just getting me off your back;

2) something I did was a ‘good job’, but I don’t know what, so I will have to do a number of things I did recently to test which one was ‘good’.

Descriptive feedback shows that you actually paid attention to what the child did. It means you noticed the effort or time spent and commented on the effort rather than judged the outcome.

How do I do this, you ask?

Really pay attention to what the child did and avoid using judgment words like: good, great, beautiful, bad, ugly, etc. In my Early Childhood Development classes, students are not allowed to use the words “good” or “bad”. This is the rule to force them to use more descriptive language that has shared meaning. What does ‘good’ mean? What does ‘bad’ mean? We all have different values and ideas regarding those ideas.

If the child has made a drawing or painting, you can say:

“Wow, I see that you put a lot of time into that art. I can count five different colors in the one painting. I wonder what you were thinking when you combined those two colors?”


“You did that painting really fast. There are some famous artists that also use mostly one color just like you did here. Is that color special to you in some way?”

If the child has been kind to someone else:

“I feel so proud of you when you are patient with your sister/brother. I know he/she can be annoying sometimes, but I see you are getting more patient now.”
Etc., etc., etc.

Adults often feel they don’t have the time to slow down and focus on the child. However, it is when you have the least time that it is most important. If you provide that 15 minutes of quality, focused attention –sometimes called ‘want-nothing-time’ by experts like Magda Gerber – you will earn half an hour without interruption following that 15 minutes. If you do this regularly, the rare times you cannot pay attention will pass almost unnoticed by your child because he/she is not hungry for attention.

Be sure to tell your child, “WOW, you let me focus on my project/work/phone call for a long time. I really appreciate that you are able to wait now. That is an important skill for people as they get older and it looks like you are learning it.”

Don’t forget that children always do the best they can, just like you try to do. When they do something wrong it is more likely because they lack the specific skills to do it right than to annoy you. Giving descriptive feedback to children of any age or capability becomes a ‘teachable moment’ rather than an argument or power struggle.

Discipline means to teach. Teach them the skills by demonstrating them. Patience with their challenges and belief in their ability to learn will result in cooperation, motivation and high self-esteem.

By Kathy Kelley

Kathy is an Early Childhood Development Instructor at ChabotCommunity College in Hayward, California. She has three children and even the baby is off to college – she always wishes she had some of that childhood time back again. Kathy can be reached at kkelley AT samplehead DOT com


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  1. This was a great article that supports what I try to tell teachers that I work with daily. It was also a good reminder to do a better job with my own children. I am also glad to see that I must not be the only one that engages in “not paying good attention.” Thanks for publishing this article I am going to print it and share it.

  2. I LOVED this article. This is exactly what I learned years ago. LOL But, it took me years to learn it. 😉

    This is one of the best articles yet!


  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the article….though I was cringing at times…..this is exactly what I was talking to my husband about this morning with regard to our middle of 3 daughters.

  4. loved the article! exactly the info i needed to be reminded of in helping my son. thanks!

  5. Usefularticle,did not realize untill now that I was being impatient regarding my younger son’s mistakes,I need to help him form his skills.Thankyou

  6. This is a very good article. As a grandma I have heard of this idea many times, but it was always hard to put into practice. I did try to do this with my children. They have all turned out well, but I want to give them additional help with their children (all different ages) so I have read the book “Liberated Parents, Liberated Children.” This is an excellent book that someone mentioned on here before. I think it would be very helpful to anyone raising children. It is very down to earth and gives such practical ideas and the exact words to say if you need them. I like the idea of preserving the DIGNITY of the children as well as the parents. Sometimes we treat our children as “little adults” instead of as the children they are. This book even gives pratical ideas and responses for dealing with pre-teen or teenage attitudes! My one daughter who has younger children has a lot a patience and already uses some of the principles in this book, but I’m sure it’s nice to know you are not alone in dealing with children’s unappreciated behavior. I hope my children will take this book to heart and after reading it use it as a reference. Thanks again for articles like these, Ellen. Can’t wait to see the next one!!

  7. What a great reminder of why my four year old has been acting up. Thank you for the great advice and reminder of how simple it really is if we just take the time to focus on what is going on.

  8. Hi Judy,

    If it’s an important call, I’ll lock myself in the bathroom for a few minutes and finish up! That is assuming that you know the children are going to be safe, of course.

    If it’s unimportant, I’ll either:

    1- get off the phone

    2- put the person on hold and say, “I’m on the phone, I’ll be with you in 5/10 minutes.” If necessary: “You can take a snack from the snack cabinet while I finish this call!”


  9. Dear Ellen:

    Thanks for the great article! My kids go nuts when I’m on the phone at home, *especially* when it’s an important call. I know exactly what you mean about the quality, focused attention to start out with, but what do *you* do when they start fighting or interrupting you in the middle of a call or conversation? Just curious…..

  10. Thought the article was a wonderful way to help remind parents of how we always want to interact with our children.Well done.

  11. Dorothy Caruso says:

    How exciting that the author addresses the problem of quality attention. As a teacher and care giver exposed to the field of education, I have often thought that many of our special needs labels as ADD, ADHD could be erased by giving quality attention to children then there would be no “Attention Deficit”.
    The children would then be labeled: AFNOR: Attention Fulfilled Not on Ritalin!
    However, I don’t see anything wrong with saying adjectives like “good” and “bad” and “beautiful” in regards to anything, because those words exist. It’s more of a matter of what motivates their use, than the prohibition of their use.
    “Excellent job” Kelly, you have infinite love in your heart and I appreciate it!
    Dorothy Caruso

  12. I’d love to add a little nugget to it. We’ve all heard about how teens can “shut down” to their parents. By giving them our attention when they’re little, they know they can come to us. (It’s just like letting them get in the habit of helping even when it’s more work to let them help at first. I wish I got that bit sooner!)

    I once read in a parenting book that if you stop what you’re doing and hold a child that needs your attention, they’ll usually be all filled up in less than 10 minutes of undivided attention. Contrast that to constant pulling for an hour while you’re trying to get something done.

    Thanks for putting together such great material Ellen.

    All the best,

  13. Thanks for a great article! It is so very true and I need this sort of gentle reminder to help me to understand and properly interpret my children’s annoying behaviors. These days, it is difficult to find time to read through my parenting books when I’m feeling frustrated. I appreciate your ability to pull out some crucial tidbits that really make a powerful difference.

    Thanks for this wonderful website and the email reminders!

  14. Thanks for an informative and helpful article. My daughter is 2 and just beginning to seek my attention when I am most busy. Your article has verbalised the method of dealing with this that I have been working on – you make so much sense!!! Hopefully I will nip this behaviour in the bud and feel better knowing that I am giving her all the attention she needs (or trying!).

  15. Ellen,
    I have a very similar philosophy about children as you do and have expressed in this article. I found it much easier to practice what I belived while I was teaching…but find it more challenging as a parent myself. I am so glad that I knew all of this important and valuable information about how to manage and support children, but sometimes I am not as effective of a mother as I was a teacher…this frustrations me and really disappoints me about who I thought I’d be as a mom…
    Any thoughts, affirmations, suggestions? I’d love them!

  16. Thank you Ellen for your encouragement and for this great article which came just at the right time. Your emails are a great help to me. Love and God bless Etrily xx

  17. This is an excellent article. It’s one of those things that I’ve learned several times, however, I find myself slipping back into the old pattern of giving attention (i.e. yelling) for the bad behaviors and not enough attention for the good behaviors. It’s easy to understand this concept, a bit harder to actually implement on a consistent basis. Keep up the good work.

  18. Pam,

    I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that you picked up your parenting style from your own parents. Look back and see if they gave you more attention for you “bad” behaivors. Sounds like you are an intelligent woman, that knows better, knows the right way, but you still struggle to implement the right way into your own relationships. I suspect this, due in large part to my own struggle to be the way my rational mind wants to be, not what my knee jerk emotions say.

    Be proud that you are breaking the chain set into motion by your own parents, and their parents before them. You might slip from time to time, but that’s allowed–at least you care to try to more!!!

    Best wishes,


  19. Anthony,

    EXACTLY! I have to say that my parents were exceptional parents..both educators as well, who knew the “right” way, but also were dealing with their own limitations (dad was an alcoholic, and an ACOA and a surviving child…oh brother)…Of course they did things that would be frowned upon in textbooks and teacher ed courses, but they really were inspirational…I am a reactor, a hot head and an occasional overreator,all due in part to a combination of being and ACOA and my inborn temperment…so I NEED to use “calming” techniques..and really rely on, what you refered to as my “rational mind”…and not temper tantrum on my kids…I admit, I do sometimes…but I do really feel like I should know better…I should be above the rest…It should be easier for me because I have so much knowledge in this area, and that only works some of the time…ugh! Enough of this counterproductive
    I appreciate your affirmations and support…
    Thanks Anthony…

  20. Oh the pangs of guilt! As I read this article I realise that I know this to be true but how many times do I fail to catch my kids being good? However, thank you for keeping this topic in front of me and helping me to appreciate the great kids that I do have.

  21. Another great wake up call to us all.
    It is nothing we don’t know but most fail to practice. I know I do.

    I had an epiphany on the subject of ‘catching them doing good’. As the Akela at a Cub (Scouting) ‘link camp’ with young girls and boys. At the close of the camp, one very young camper came up to me and said matter of factually (without accusation or reproach but slight disappointment) “you never talked to me!” Thinking that I had forgotten a promise, I asked for clarification. His response: “you talked a lot to Joe, Mike and Liz but not me”. He had named all the ADHD participants. The behavioural problems of the event. This young lad was independent, a team player, kind and courteous. So no one paid any notice! By the end of the camp everyone knew Joe, Mike and Liz, only too well.

    WE must catch them doing good.
    It is in our own selfish best interests. Everyone pulls ahead in the process.

    Now I use the strategy to turn all older Cubs into leaders. Sometimes whispered and sometimes announced:
    “Wow, you really know how to bring out the best knot tying and responsible behaviour in the younger Cubs. Have you taken a leadership course or are you just a natural?”

    That problem child quickly becomes your “leader” who is only to eager to show his ability to redirect and help others to success.

    It works!

    Thanks Ellen for this learned forum, we are all lucky to have such a place to exchange learning and to improve…’all of our behaviours’.


  22. this site rocks. i always get such good, simplified advice that i can apply to my kids, myself and even at work.etc. i appreciate everyone’s comments at the end of the article’s, as a single mother it helps me not feel so alone in my struggles.

  23. My youngest daughter receives negative teacher interviews about her behaviour and it is affecting her grades too. I hear the teachers saying “she is seeking attention” or “she behaves this way for attention”. I didn’t quite understand what the teachers meant by this (perhaps teachers should be reminded of this article too). I thought I was giving my 3 girls attention and now I realize that perhaps I am not giving the proper attention. It’s true, if I think back the attention is feedback to her negative behaviour. I will try to practice the positive attention. Thank you for this article.

  24. Homeschooling Mom says:

    Wonderful article! We are a walking testimony of this articles topic…my son was in school until December when we began homeschooling. We noticed that the negative attention he was receiving in school in regards to his talkative nature deeply hurt him and his ability to enjoy learning as well as other aspects of his life simply because he thought himself “bad” all the time. After months of positive reinforcement and literally ignoring offensive behavior (when it was ignorable), we have seen such a change in him. No more whining, temper tantrums, etc. Just a happy kid who has once again discovered his love for life and learning.

    Positive reinforcement works!!

  25. Kyla Hamilton says:

    I definitly give the best attention when I am mad, dissappointed with a behavior or scared. I have a very low self esteem and seem to care more about how I look as a mother then how I can teach my kids the best way to act in certain situations. I am trying to develop my children’s self esteem but it is becoming very clear to me that it isn’t their’s I need to fix first but my own. Where do I start??? HELP!