At a group dinner at a Mexican restaurant, I sipped my margarita and talked with my neighbor, an eight-year-old boy. And, because I’m a manny, I take a particular interest in youths and their rearing. We covered the most important topics—Star Wars Legos, our favorite PlayStation games, and which X-man’s powers we most coveted—when I asked him about school. He reported that his favorite subjects were, of course, recess, and, encouragingly, science. Then his mother interjected herself to the conversation.
“But what have you been doing in class that you’re not supposed to do?” she said, leading him into a trap.
He sighed. “I talk or make noises.”
I considered this for a moment, and then I asked, “Do you feel like the teacher calls on you as much as you’d like?”
“No. I mean, I get called on sometimes, but not very often.” Just what I suspected.
It’s been a while since I was in school but I clearly recall that bubbling urge to whisper something to my neighbor. Sure, Mr. Saslow is talking about Piggy in Lord of the Flies, but I have a funny comment NOW! I wanted to be heard. I wanted somebody to notice me. It took place in my subconscious in a way I’m only now aware of but it was there: I wanted attention. I wasn’t a bad kid, and neither is this boy.
I’m concerned that this teacher’s intent was to have the parents rectify a classroom issue. Teaching is hard, and I have the utmost admiration for those who undertake the challenges of the profession. But the golden rules for effectively applying consequences are that they must be immediate, directly related to the misbehavior, and, you know, actually able to be enforced. A parent punishing a child at home for speaking out in class meets none of those requirements. A teacher is responsible for the structure in his classroom, and therefore should have a clear method for dealing with infractions. Informing the parents of the situation is one thing; expecting them to fix it is completely different (and unrealistic).
The bigger takeaway from this all-too-common problem is that as social creatures, the desire for attention is completely normal. When we are busy and can’t give the child our attention at a particular moment, we adults must be prepared to patiently and consistently ignore them if they attempt to use destructive attention-seeking behavior. This informs the child of circumstantial restrictions. The other side of the coin is to give the child your attention when it is available and they seek it constructively. So, if your child is needlessly and incessantly screaming in the other room while you’re cooking, keep cooking. But, when you are sitting at the table eating a family meal, put your freakin’ phone away and talk to your kids!
If a teacher told me that my child whispers to her neighbor or speaks out of turn during class, I’d ask the teacher what his strategy was for dealing with the situation. Afterwards, I might choose to share my authentic feelings about the situation with my child: “I’m disappointed to hear that you aren’t paying attention in class;” or positively if there’s an improvement: “I’m happy to hear that you are sharing only when it’s your turn. If your relationship with your child is strong, they will care about your opinion. But the most a parent can do to influence the situation is to ensure that parental attention is ample at home and that social needs are met in a healthy way.
I worry that in this type of situation we often discourage a child’s completely natural need for attention. If we beat the desire to speak out of them, we are both teaching something harmful—a fear of speaking—and not teaching situational awareness—share when it’s your turn, pay attention when it’s some else’s. The Practice Life Method regards social skills as quintessential. And if we’ve taught our kids the balance of giving and sharing attention, they’ll thrive in any group situation.