The Power of Attention: How to Get the Behavior You Want From Your Toddler

I’m often asked about the best ways to manage toddlers’ behavior. There are so many techniques out there, and it can be difficult to sift through them. With a bit of digging, however, it’s clear to see that they all share a few key elements, the most important of which pertains to the power of attention. You, as a parent, already possess the most powerful tool there is to manage your toddler’s difficult behavior; you just have to learn to use it right. Let me explain.

When I bring up the notion of positive attention with parents, they often respond with something like, “Oh, my daughter gets plenty of that – that’s not the problem.” The important thing, though, is not only that children get enough attention, but also that they get it in the right way, and at the right times; as a parent, you have to dole out your attention strategically. Think of it this way: your attention is like money. Consider this parallel: I get to work every day around 9am. Let’s say that tomorrow I get in at 8, my boss sees me in the hallway and says, “Wow, Dr. Hershberg, it’s so great that you’re here so early; here’s an extra $500.” If that happened, do you think I’d get to work at 8am the day after tomorrow? Darn right I would. And why? Exactly. Because ALL of us – not only kids – are more likely to repeat the behaviors for which we get rewarded. Money is a huge reward for grown-ups. What’s the biggest reward for kids? Attention. So every time you give your little one attention, you are paying him, and whatever he did that got attention, he is going to do again. You have to think to yourself: do I want to pay my little guy for this? Do I want him to do it again?

The best way to give positive attention is in the form of specific praise. “Good girl,” or “Nice job” are both fine, but they’re too vague to lead to real behavior change. If two-year-old Elena comes to you when you ask her to, and you say “Good job,” she may know you’re talking about her following directions. But she may also think she walked in a particularly praiseworthy manner or, for that matter, that you liked the way she dressed the American Girl doll she’s holding. You need to pick the behavior that you want to see improve – say, following directions – and praise it specifically and frequently. Every time Elena follows directions, you want to be ready with a payment: “Great job, Elena; I love the way you followed my directions the very first time I asked!”

Being strategic with your attention is easier said than done. Picture yourself at the supermarket at checkout time. Three-year-old Jacob, however, is taking his sweet time over by the oranges, picking them up one by one to examine their color and shape. “Please come over here, Jake; it’s time to go.” In scenario one, Jake listens to you; he puts down the orange, and comes to stand by your side. You don’t pay him much mind, as you’re busy fishing through your bag for your credit card. Maybe you say “thanks,” but if you do, it’s quick, and you’re not really making eye contact. All in all, not such a big or satisfying “payment” for Jake, who did exactly what you asked him to do, and right when you asked him to do it. In scenario two, you give Jake the same instructions, but he pays you no mind. So you repeat yourself: “Jake, I said please come over here.” This time Jake responds: “No!” “Jake,” you warn, “I don’t want to have to say it again; get over here.” Jake, again: “Nooo!” This continues, until you abandon your place in the checkout line, walk over to the oranges, and take Jake by the hand. In this case, Jake didn’t do what you wanted him to do, and boy, did he get a big payment for it – you spoke to him more, and ultimately joined him physically, all for not following directions. What did he learn? That not following directions is a pretty great way to get Mom’s (or Dad’s) attention.

If you’re like many parents, you might be thinking to yourself that, in the above situation, the attention Jake received was negative, not positive; after all, his mother was hardly in a great mood by the time she had to drag him away from the oranges. It’s important to know, however, that young children differ from adults in a very important way. Namely, they prefer positive attention and negative attention to no attention at all. Adults, on the other hand, would take being ignored over negative attention any day – wouldn’t you rather fly beneath the radar than have your boss chastise you for all the things she thinks you’re doing wrong?

So what if, going back to Jake at the supermarket, you gave him a lot more attention – a much bigger payment – for following your directions in scenario one. He leaves the oranges alone, meets you by your side, and you say, “Wow, Jake, that was awesome! I asked you to come join me, and you followed my directions right away! That’s really helpful to me; thanks. Give me a high five.” What does Jake learn then? That he gets rewarded when he follows directions, when he does the exact thing that you want him to do. Will it feel unnatural or contrived? It may, at first. It can be tough to flip the paradigm around so that your child receives more attention for doing the right thing than the wrong thing, but once you get the hang of it, the approach will come to feel much more natural – it’s like building a muscle.

If it feels like it might be too hard to make this shift, think of it like this: your child is going to make sure that she gets a pizza of attention every day – attention is a basic need for kids. It’s not up to you whether to give her that pizza, but, rather, how many slices are going to be positive attention and how many are going to be negative attention. And frankly, if you don’t give your child a full pizza of positive attention, she’ll end up taking the rest of the slices in negative attention – whether you want her to or not.

A couple of final points. First, you may ask why – and how – you are supposed to provide positive attention to a child who has been difficult to manage all day long. I mean, if Elena has been throwing tantrums since she got out of bed in the morning, then why on earth would you be super positive on the one occasion, late in the day, that she is able to keep it together even when frustrated (say, that she can’t have a cookie at 5pm)? Saying something nice to Elena is probably the last thing you feel like doing, which is understandable, and human nature. But think about your favorite baseball team. It’s the seventh inning, and they have yet to score. Finally, someone gets a base hit – do you cheer? Of course! Why? Because when the team is having a rough game, they need fans more than ever. You could say, “Well, they didn’t score for six innings, so I’m not cheering them on now.” You could also say, “This is only a base hit – I’m waiting for a home run to cheer.” But you don’t say either of those things. Rather, you cheer; you cheer because you know the team needs it, and because your cheering lets the players know that there’s someone in their corner, rooting them on, there for them and proud of them when they do even the littlest thing right. Once there’s a base hit, momentum often picks up, and the whole game turns around. Right?

Second, you may be thinking that your little ones “should know” how to follow directions, or how to stay calm when they’re frustrated, or any number of other things. Putting aside developmental norms (an article for another day!), let’s go back to baseball, and your low-scoring team. When they get that first base hit, do you abstain from cheering because the team is made up of professional athletes, and they’re just doing their job? Of course not; the fact that it’s their job has absolutely nothing to do with it. You cheer because you’re a loyal fan, and because the cheering helps.

And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.


Photo via Flickr User  Frédéric de Villamil