The Attention Addiction Syndrome

by Nancy Monson

You've waited ________ (fill in the blank) years to have your baby. It is so beautiful, so special, so incredible. You never knew you could love so much. You want to give it the world, right? WRONG. What really happens when we lather all our attention and affection onto a child?

A baby's universe is largely defined in terms of the people around him, all these huge beings hovering over the baby. Babies are completely dependent, so there is a real need for a certain level of attention and care. But there is an overlay of emotional exaggeration on top of the natural giving. What happens is twofold: the baby comes to feel that she is the center of the universe, and her effect on the adults is the center of their universe AND a baby is not given the space to explore and learn about life just by being with her own experience.

Maria Montessori writes in "The Secret of Childhood" that parents have an egocentric view towards children by looking at them as completely helpless, something empty to be filled, and lacking an inner guide. A baby has within him a seed of who he is, and that seed needs space to expand. We think that a baby needs constant attention to feel loved, but all the praise and attention we give children is like over watering the seed. Because we can't see it, we don't know that a child is having inner experiences and feelings. We jump in and take over with all our love and energy, and over time, a child gets out of touch with himself. A child needs care, love, security, but the seed of who a child is needs to be watered with the fullness of his own internal life, not just by what adults have to give.

Babies have an endless fascination with the world around and within them. They stare into space, look at their hands, wiggle their limbs. Yet every time a baby cries, somebody's rushing there right away to engage her, to soothe her out. Crying is one of the baby's only means of expression and feeling the power of their lungs. A lot of times there is nothing wrong – they are just expressing what's going on for them! In so many ways, we pull the baby's attention away from their inner experiences and out towards us. We do this when they cry, when they are content just lying there or playing with a toy, and we interrupt, maybe because we think nothing is going on, or we want some attention ourselves. It becomes more and more difficult to make the reentry back into themselves. So, if you leave the baby alone, there is going to be crying for awhile because there is the shock of having to be with herself. But that passes pretty quickly and then the baby's quite amused just by being with herself. The longer children are lavished with attention, the harder it is to make the shift back into themselves. The message they get is that what goes on internally, what we can't see, is not as important as the attention exchange with people. From early on we never got a sense of the fullness in being with ourselves and our experience as a deep sense of nourishment.

The end result of the "attention addiction" is that our world begins to revolve around how others see us and the attention we get. We all know how children come to demand our attention and approval. If we've really given them all we have, why are they demanding more? Why are children so addicted to what their peers think of them? Does it have to be that way? Why are children desperate for friends, for approval, for acceptance? What happens to a child's ability to be content from within?

What can we do to help our children stay in touch with an "inner knowing" and ability to experience and feel from the depths of their own individuality? When you are engaging your children, be as present as possible. Empty attention is as bad as too much attention. Give your children alone time so that they can stay in touch with the richness and contentment of just being with themselves. Pay attention to your own need for attention from your children and don't pull them away from more internal spaces they are engaged in. Remember that attention doesn't mean love. In what ways does your child truly know that you love him?

These are some very helpful books that touch on different parts of the attention problem: "Punished by Rewards," by Alfie Kohn; "The Secret of Childhood," by Maria Montessori, and "The Spiritual Hunger of the Modern Child," published by Bennet Books in Santa Fe, NM (505-986-1428).

© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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