Sunday, 29 January 2012

Risky Business

Children’s needs are really very simple –as are all humans’. Children need what we all need (thank you, William Glasser!):

  • security
  • love and a sense of belonging (attention)
  • power
  • freedom
  • fun

What I’ve noticed is that from a child’s point of view, it doesn’t matter very much what it is, because all of them can be fixed by returning to the top.

It seems almost as if a child’s making deals with the universe, as their behaviour deteriorates: Fine. If I can’t have security, I’ll take a sense of belonging. Which flows down the list almost naturally: Fine, if I can’t have love, I’ll take power… if I can’t have power, I’ll have freedom… if I can’t have freedom, I’ll take fun.

Fun is the end where kids light their houses on fire, or find themselves being featured on Web Soup because their friends are having ‘fun’ too…

'… wish I’d overheard the conversation that led up to this …

These kids are seriously missing something, and while ‘brain cells’ is the obvious answer, I’ll offer the ‘not so obvious’ answer instead:


They need it, and they will get it, even if it means the kind of negative attention idiotic stunts like this garner. They might appear to be suicidal, but to the twit child involved, it’s essential to life that they get what they need, so risking a little life and limb in the process is totally fine.

For a while, this is going to look a lot like ‘blame the parents’ except it’s a more textured point than that. For now, let me say: a child who is acting out on this scale is screaming a desperate need for attention that child is not getting.

Starving children cry in hunger. Exhausted children stumble around and whimper at the least thing. Thirsty children beg for water. No one would say ‘oh, the child is clearly hungry, exhausted and thirsty, give her a Barbie.’

But somehow, when it’s attention, almost anything else will be thrown at the child instead. It’s like attention is the most valuable and scarce commodity on the planet, so there is simply no way of ever meeting a child’s frivolous and insatiable demand for it.

Parents will say ‘I was right there with them, the whole time!’ Yes? Doing what? Quietly watching them without personal distractions, activities or ‘important work’ to complete?

Nattering non-stop at a child is not ‘attention’. Talking about children isn’t attention, either. Neither is shopping them around to any expert you can find in the neighbourhood who might be able to ‘fix’ or ‘prescribe’ or, with any luck at all, ‘take away’ the problem/child. Worrying about the child while lying in bed awake half the night isn’t either. Ordering a child around isn’t. Neither is looking up for 4 seconds while distracted by the paper, tv, computer, game, magazine, cooking, cleaning, phone conversation, only to drift slowly back to whatever it is while vaguely saying ‘uh-hunh…’

We often mistake 'doing things with' or worse, 'doing things alongside' or worst of all 'always doing whatever he wants' as the same as 'attention.' Nothing could be further from reality. It is possible to pay attention to someone else in the room while they are occupied in a solitary endeavour, while you get on with your own stuff. It takes practice, and awareness of what it really is about --but attention is actually a lot less draining than 'agreeing,' 'loyalty,' and 'unceasing participation in identical activities' --the substitutes that often stand in for genuine attention…

What Works is Simple

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That's because it is nothing more than standing (or sitting, or lying down) in a space of willingness to see the child, whole, here and now... to listen with patience and attention to what the child needs to say, completely, here and now... to feel the child's emotional expression as it is, in its entirety, here and now. If that means 'yes, I can see that frustrating you enormously, and I was thinking about you while I was watching... I wonder what you want to do about that...'  or 'I hear you telling me about all the differences between the 376,541 pokemon cards available and how they fascinate you completely,' then that's what is needed now. If that means sensing the increasing need to be seen and meeting it with placid eye contact, while the child looks from you to what he's doing and back to you and back to what he's doing 10 times in 3 minutes in silence --do you have any experience of having someone who loves you just seeing you, whatever you're doing, and making eye contact whenever you happen to look up?

Just here and now, as it really is right here and right now. In a moment or three, you'll be free to get back to whatever you were doing, with a rejuvenated child feeling filled up again..."

Photo used with permission: Creative Commons Comm/Attrib Raphael Goetter 'Monde'