One of my good teachers used to say that children need attention like a plant needs sun and water. They need the adults around them to notice them, to encourage them, and to interact with them in order to feel good about themselves and to feel comfortable in the social world. If they can’t get those needs met in positive ways, they switch to the less-than-attractive behaviors that force the grownups to pay attention.
When plants don’t get enough water or kids don’t get enough attention, they aren’t picky. I’ve been known to dump cold coffee on my parched African violets when in a hurry. “Better than nothing,” I say to myself. Fortunately, they don’t seem to mind. Kids too will settle for hurried leftovers if that’s all they can get. Being shooed away or scolded is better than being ignored.
A grandmother I know babysits for her daughter’s two children, ages 6 and 8, for a couple of hours while their mother does the grocery shopping on Saturday afternoons. She’s an accomplished knitter who turns out an intricate sweater for every family member every year. She says she loves doing it; that it keeps her fingers from stiffening up with arthritis; that it is something personal she can give family members on birthdays. Stop by her house for a weekend visit and you’re talking over her knitting. Unless she’s doing something that requires her hands, she’s occupied with yarn and needles. For all I know, she even knits in the shower!
That’s okay with me but it’s most definitely not okay with her grandchildren. They want her to see what they’re doing. They want her to talk to them. They want her to play. Nope. She’s knitting. She tells me that they’re old enough to amuse themselves for 2 or 3 hours. She says she is happy to give them a place to be but since she works a full-time job during the week, she needs her weekend time for knitting.
I suppose this would work if the kids agreed and stayed in a corner reading quietly. But no. I’ve watched them ramp up. First one or the other of them will bring Grandma a drawing to look at. “Hmm,” says Grandma. “Now go play.” Then they get a little noisy. “Quiet down now. I’m trying to concentrate,” barks Grandma. Then they do something like hang onto her chair. “I’ve told you to go play.” Finally one bops the other who obliges by screaming and – here’s the payoff — Grandma – stops – knitting! She puts it down with a huff and a sigh, goes over to the kids and gives them a stern talking-to about being more considerate. Score one for the kids!
The kids need attention. They need to know that Grandma knows they are there. A scolding is at least an acknowledgment that they have impact. What their grandmother fails to understand (although I’ve tried to tell her in the most tactful way I can) is that she is, in fact, training these kids to misbehave. Pretty soon they’re going to figure out it’s more efficient to skip the preliminaries and go straight to fighting since that’s what she responds to. It’s unfair to the kids to teach them that fighting is the best way to get a grownup’s attention. And, sadly, it deprives them all of the friendly relationship they could have if Grandma would just drop her own agenda for about 10 minutes on the hour and dole out some interest and warmth.
The flaw in this woman’s thinking is that she sees the situation as “either-or” when it could be “both-and.” She thinks she can either knit or be involved in her grandkids’ Saturday afternoons. She thinks that once she “gives in,” the kids will keep bothering her and she’ll have no time for her own activity.
That’s not necessarily so. Secure kids want their independence as much as they want attention. Watch little kids on the playground. They venture out for a bit. They run back to their parents for a hug. They venture out again. Touching base with the adults is a kind of refueling on love and attention before going back out on their own. Once they know they can count on getting the fuel, they are quite happy to take off.
The grandmother in my story loves her grandkids. That’s not open to question. She just hasn’t figured out that checking in regularly will give them the emotional fuel they need to play by themselves for awhile. It will actually free her to concentrate on her knitting or a phone call or whatever else she needs to do until they all connect again. It’s a natural choreography.
If she would ask me for advice (which she probably won’t), I could give her some pointers about how to make both a sweater and a closer-knit relationship with the kids.
- Be prepared. Grandma and the kids’ mom need to make sure there are some art supplies, some age-appropriate books and magazines, and some toys on a special shelf. Kids who have something to play with are more likely to “go play.” Toys at Grandma’s house stay there. When things are limited to a particular place, they become more special – and more likely to be played with.
- Help them transition. The kids come in from a morning of soccer practices, errands, and general running around. They’re wound up. They’re excited. They need help settling down and settling in. A little conversation and a small snack would help them shift gears to a more quiet setting. While snacking, Grandma can talk about the things the kids could do for the next hour. She can tell them she needs the time to knit and she can ask them how they are going to use the time to play by themselves while she concentrates. Providing the fuel of love and attention upfront gives kids something to go on for awhile. Having a plan helps them be more independent. If they get antsy, Grandma can remind them they made an agreement and ask them to hold on for . . .
- . . . sharing time. When adults promise to check in and do it predictably, children feel more secure and are more able to manage themselves. Grandma needs to put the knitting down and give the kids her full and undivided attention for only about ten minutes each hour. If she does, the kids won’t need to resort to acting up to get her involved with them. If Grandma doesn’t schedule it, she’ll end up spending a whole lot more time fending off the bids for attention and mediating squabbles.
- Make contact. When we give kids affectionate contact now and then, they don’t need to bug us for it. If their grandmother does happen to get up for a trip to the bathroom or to fetch something, it only takes an extra 30 seconds to walk by the kids and give them each a squeeze.
- Say a friendly goodbye. A “it was nice having you,” a hug, and a compliment (“You played well today”), sets a positive stage for the next visit.
Someday when they’re adults, those kids may find a trove of beautiful handmade sweaters that they wore for awhile and quickly outgrew. How they remember the woman who made them depends on whether they see the sweaters as a testament to her love for them or as competition for it.