Today’s guest author blogger is Tamar Jacobson, PhD. In addition to writing “Don’t Get So Upset!” Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own and editing Perspectives on Gender in Early Childhood, Dr. Jacobson is chair of the Department of Teacher Educator, director of the Early Childhood Education Program, and associate professor at Rider University. She is also a frequent and popular presenter at international, national, regional, and state conferences and workshops on a variety of topics. Read on for Dr. Jacobson’s musings on attention-getting in the classroom and beyond.
I do not know how many times have I heard a teacher or parent say, “Oh, she/he is just doing it for attention.” I am sure that if I have not actually used that expression myself, I have certainly thought it — about others, and about myself. And, it is not usually in a positive way. From the very earliest years, adults silence children, trivialize, and humiliate them. We scold them for wanting our attention, and shush them at every chance we get, defining “good” children as silent, obedient, or self-regulating, and who do not take up too much of our time, energy, or attention. We have all been taught, “Children should be seen and not heard.” In short, we shame children and make them feel guilty for wanting our attention in the first place.
A few days ago I was having lunch with my son in Manhattan. He is almost forty years old — an accomplished jazz pianist with a graduate degree in family therapy. He asked me what I am working on lately, and I described to him my concern about children’s need for attention and how challenging it can be for teachers. As we chatted back and forth, he reminded me that giving or withholding attention is complex. “It is more than just noticing someone,” he stated passionately. “It is about interactions. It has to do with relationship.” I was moved by how he tenderly shared with me the ways in which he sought my attention when he was a young child.
Don’t we all want attention? Don’t we all want to have our feelings, ideas, and self-expression validated, acknowledged, supported, or related to in some way? How do we really know what is the right amount of attention a person needs? Can we imagine what it feels like as an older, younger, or middle sibling to have to share attention? Can a person want too much attention?
Brain development research shows us that children need our love, and even touch, to survive — to feel attached and worthwhile. They would die without it — some do. Children must know what we think about them. They desire our validation, acknowledgement, and support. And when they do not receive it, they compensate in all kinds of ways: repressing their needs and wants, shouting and becoming aggressive or violent, going underground and harboring resentment alone, or seeking it from anyone who will give it to them. Children feel invisible when they are unnoticed. I know I did!
Reaching into the recesses of my memory, I learn about how I came to be me. The most disturbing, and difficult, habit to overcome is that I repeat what I did for attention as a young child as an older adult over and over again. Even as I understand how I developed this way, it is an extraordinary challenge to alter my behavior and feelings associated with it. For example, when I was a child I tried to gain attention by serving others (namely, my mother or father) while putting my needs last. And then, if I was noticed for my goodness, I felt worthwhile. I have dragged that style with me right up until now, and try as I may, as an older adult I continue to transfer to everyone else those old patterns of emotions and behaviors. The trouble with this method is that I have to serve and sacrifice for a long time before I am noticed for my goodness.By then, I am exhausted, frustrated, angry, and resentful, and after briefly feeling worthwhile, I lash out — much to the amazement of everyone around. Then I feel ashamed and guilty for my outburst, and immediately return to serving and sacrificing. A full cycle of attention-getting behavior that might have helped me survive as a child, but is quite unproductive or, even, destructive for me now.
I think about blogging, Twitter, or Facebook. Don’t we just love the attention! Posting our thoughts, photographs, and birthday dates just so that others out there in cyber-space will see, hear, and respond to us — immediately, if not sooner. I often find myself thinking or even saying out loud to myself, “Am I just doing this [whatever it is] for attention?” I feel shame when I seek it, and constantly hear people judging others for being an attention-getter.
We all were children once, and, as adults, probably carry within us different ways of dealing with repressing our need for attention. Half the battle to understanding this very basic need would be to acknowledge it as important in the first place, at least giving us permission for desiring it. When we remember what we did as children to be noticed, and important to significant adults in our lives, it helps us to better understand and negotiate children’s need for attention.
“Attention getting” is a complex issue in our work with young children. I wonder how we are able to deal with children’s need for it, when we had to develop all kinds of weird ways of seeking it ourselves? Being more aware of our own emotional development will help us give loads of loving attention to all those young children out there — starting from the day they are born. We will be able to relate more objectively to what they say and do, and help them feel worthwhile through authentic relationships.
For more from Dr. Jacobson, visit her personal blog and check out “Don’t Get So Upset!” Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own and Perspectives on Gender in Early Childhood.
Tell us: What are your thoughts on what Dr. Jacobson wrote? How do you react to attention-getting behavior in your early childhood setting? What do you do to make children feel noticed and appreciated?