Sharon, the mother of two small children, called me to complain that her three-year-old boy, Maurice, clung to her legs or clothing all day, preventing her from doing many of the things she needed to do. As we spoke on the phone, I could hear Maurice screaming and demanding Sharon’s attention.
“How much time and attention do you give him?” I asked.
“That’s all I do,” she said. “I feel like I’m answering questions and doing what he wants every minute I’m awake.”
“I think I know the problem. Maurice is constantly demanding your attention, so when you do give it to him, it doesn’t really count for anything. He doesn’t feel loved. He just feels like his demands are being filled, much like you were a store clerk filling orders.”
“I don’t understand yet.”
“If you force me to look at you—at the point of a gun, for example—or you pay me to look at you, how fulfilling would that be for you?”
“No, it really wouldn’t. But what if I freely offered you my time and attention, without your doing anything to earn to demand it? Would you like that better?”
“You might even feel loved, yes?”
I explained to Sharon that what her son wanted was her unconditional love, the time and attention and caring she offered freely. I told her to go and find Maurice ten times a day—spending only a few minutes with him each time—and to sit down on the floor at his level, look him in the eye, touch him, and talk to him about whatever he was doing.
“That’s a lot of time,” she said.
“Do the math,” I said. “My idea sounds like a lot less time than you’re spending now on listening to him cry and scream and demand your attention. A LOT less stress too. And what I’m suggesting is entirely different in its effects. You’ll be giving Maurice attention proactively—before he demands it. One minute of proactive attention is worth fifty minutes of attention that is not freely given.”
In TWO days, Sharon called me and said, “It’s over.”
“What is over?”
“He’s quit complaining, whining, screaming—all of it. He plays by himself. He smiles when he sees me. And I love playing with him.”
Proactive attention. Kids love it. Partners, friends, coworkers, employees, and everybody else loves it. Try it and find out for yourself.
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