“I’m always amazed when adults say that children ‘just did that to get attention’. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?”
― Lawrence J. Cohen, Playful Parenting
So much of what we’re taught to value in parenting contradicts this! I remember hearing or reading something to this effect when my oldest, Melanie, was born and having an instant reaction against it. My thought at the time was that, if Melanie starts to act in an unacceptable way, even if it’s for something worthwhile, then I have to wait until I can divorce the actions from the need they were attempting to address or else I’d be reinforcing the negative behavior.
Here’s how I think about it now:
The idea that I’m going to reinforce a negative way of getting attention by giving the attention is missing two points.
First, it assumes that I’m only ever able to give that attention when things get to the point that my kids begin to act out in order to get it. In other words, as long as the parent has the ability to be proactive once they realize that they’ve not been giving their kids the attention they need, the problem (the kid’s feelings of being ignored) can be addressed 99% of the time without reinforcing anything negative – because the kids won’t have to escalate to that sort of thing to get the attention they need.
By giving kids positive attention regularly, parents can not only avoid teaching their kids that negative behavior is a necessary means of getting attention, they can build a relationship with their kids that’ll encourage positive behavior when they need things – including attention.
Second, I think my old skepticism of this approach overestimated the power of discipline and underestimated the power of the need for a strong, happy connection to family. In other words, kids’ need for attention from their parents is far greater than their need to avoid any reasonable discipline. So if a child is acting up for attention, doling out a punishment isn’t going to stop them. The drive for attention and interaction with parents is just too strong to be thwarted by a time out or the loss of a favorite toy or even a spanking.