"Attending" is an extremely important parenting skill that only a few parents tend to cultivate. The definition of attending is simple: to reinforce desired behavior by verbally describing it with enthusiasm.
Attending is a very simple concept, which helps you build a better relationship with your little one. A better relationship consequently improves the communication between the two of you and lays the ground for an improved co-operation when it comes to your child performing tasks and chores that you set them to. It allows you to tune in to your child's behavior while simultaneously letting your child know that you are very interested in the positive things they do. However, shifting the focus from the negative to the positive aspects of your child's behavior is the biggest challenge of "attending".
You must be thinking: "Easier said than done" right? Indeed, according to expert Child Psychologists Forehand and Long (2010) many parents find attending to be one of the most difficult skills to learn. That is mainly because most of the times parents who seek help or face problematic behaviors at home, find the negative aspects of the child's behavior so prominent and most evident to them - which makes sense. Therefore, it requires substantial effort from parents to learn and acquire this skill.
In order to understand how important the skill of attending is, think of your current or former employers. If I were to ask you to: 1) list the top three qualities of your favorite employer and 2) the most eminent characteristics of your least favorite employer, what would you write down? Most people tend to describe most favorite bosses as people who were being understanding, appreciative, warm and were providing positive feedback to their employees. Again, a research has shown that those who perceived these characteristics in their employers were not only happier in their jobs but also more productive.
Now, let's suppose for a minute that you are your kid's supervisor (which you are, in a way). How would you describe your characteristics as his "supervisor"? Many parents fall in the vicious cycle in which they become overly negative and provide less than optimal levels of warmth and positive feedback. Children, however, are quite capable and accurate in perceiving that their parents always notice their inappropriate behavior but very rarely acknowledge their appropriate behavior. As a result, they continue behaving inappropriately (because they do not have the ability yet to express it verbally) and their parents become increasingly negative. In contrast, parents who learn to use the attentive skill are perceived as warmer and more aware of a child's appropriate behavior. Through attending skills, parents improve the relationship with their children, which result to the child becoming more content and more willing to cooperate.
Here are some examples of how a parent attends, notices and shows interest to a child's behavior:
"My, you 're stacking the blocks so high!"
"Now, you are driving the truck!"
"You are lining up all the toys!"
"You are holding the fork the right way!"
"The balloon is getting so big!"
"You are coloring the sun yellow!"
As you may have realised, there are no instructions or questions involved, but pure observation, attendance and immediate feedback. The exclamation mark next to each sentence is used to emphasise the positive emotion and enthusiasm transferred from the parent to the child. We are simply observing our child in the here-and-know and providing simple but positive feedback on what we are attending.
Another way to attend might be by imitating what your child is doing. For example, if he is blowing the balloon, the parent may also blow the balloon. Imitation not only communicates approval to the child's behavior, but it also teaches young children how to play with others.
What to avoid:
Does the following conversation seem familiar to you?
Parent: Let's play now (instruction)
Parent: What do you want to play? (question)
Child: I don't know
Parent: Well we don't have long. Decide now (instruction)
Child: Let's play blocks
Parent: That will be fun.
Child: I know.
Parent: Move them over here so that we can play (instruction)
Parent: Why don't you make a castle? (question)
Parent: You are really stacking the blocks high (attend)
Child: I know
Parent: So, do you think you can make a castle like in the picture? (question)
Child: I don't know.
Parent: Well, try to make one. (instruction)
Child: I will.
Parent: Then you should put the big blocks on the bottom. (instruction)
The above interaction style is one dominated by instructions and questions. This style of interaction mainly indicates that the parent is typically interested in having their child respond to them by behaving as directed or answering questions. The above conversation risks the child feeling easily tuned out, responding to less instructions and questions with time, leading to parents feeling they need to give an order in order for them to feel that their child is compliant.
If you have read thus far then, excellent! It implies that you are a parent that is interested in improving your interaction, communication and relationship with your child. If you want to have a go at attending, it would be a good idea to start thinking about putting instructions and questions to the minimum and focusing more on positive aspects of your child's behavior. Stay tuned as more will follow specifically on learning, developing and implementing the "attending" skill.
Forehand, R., & Long, N. (1996). Parenting the Strong-Willed Child: The Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two-to Six-Year-Olds. Contemporary Books, Two Prudential Plaza, Suite 1200, Chicago, IL 60601-6790.
McMahon, R. R., & Forehand, R. L. (2003). Helping the noncompliant child. New York: The Guilford Press.