Tips for Raising a Young Child to be CALM, thoughtful and able to focus

by Ginny Trierweiler, Born 4 Brilliance Parent CoachEmi appreciating flowers

I teach parents and educators how to raise children who are Calm, Capable and Confident, at a time when our parenting and education approaches– and child outcomes — are moving further and further in the opposite direction. As we increase approaches to children that involve a lot of underestimating and micromanaging them, our children are becoming less calm, capable, and confident. They are becoming less mature, thoughtful, and goal-directed, less able to concentrate and focus their attention– and more anxious and depressed.  The solutions are simple and clear, but you have to be willing to do things quite differently from others around you and quit underestimating and micromanaging young children.

This is one of a series of articles about how to raise young children to be calm, thoughtful and able to focus their attention. Does it make sense to you that these 3 things go together?  If you think about brain development and executive functions, it does.  We have many parts of our brain that manage automatic reactions. We don’t have to focus our attention to be able to breath or to run from something chasing us. 

Why the Abilities to be Calm, Thoughtful, and Focused are important

We need to be thinking clearly and focusing our attention when we are trying to achieve a goal that takes time and effort.  And this is one area of skills that is becoming more problematic in our world today.  I would venture to suggest that all of us have had the experience of confusion, jumbled thoughts and difficulty concentrating.  When this happens too often, we have difficulty getting things done.

One reason this is problematic is that being unable to achieve our goals can make it difficult to pay our bills.  It can make it difficult to reverse unhealthy behaviors when we need to and that can reduce our enjoyment of life and even the length of our life. If we generally lack the ability to set goals, organize ourselves toward achieving them, and persist until we get there, we will experience more struggles, while having trouble feeling happy and fulfilled in life.  We certainly won’t tend to feel that we are fulfilling our highest potential when we lack the ability to focus to achieve our goals.

Tip #1 for Raising a Child to be Calm, Thoughtful, Focused – Support Focus and Concentration, Let them Work to their Heart’s Content

The first tip is that we ought to support the child’s focus of attention when they are working at something.  That sounds obvious!  However, when I conducted an observational study comparing what adults were doing in environments where young children were unusually mature, calm, thoughtful, and confident, I realized that they were nurturing their calm and focus in ways that we don’t tend to do so throughout society.

Now, I have to apologize for my part in the current state of affairs.  I was one of those child development experts who promoted the idea that, because language is so important, we need to talk to young children almost constantly. This advice came from research showing that upper middle class children were exposed to much more language in the early years than children from lower income households. When researchers followed these children, they found that the lower income children started school way behind in terms of language and other skills influenced by language.  Most concerning was the finding that those children never caught up. And, since language skills and reading were critical to so much other learning, the recommendation developed that adults ought to talk to young children all the time. Adults should narrate their own activities around their child, and they should narrate the child’s activities.

To be sure, there is benefit to recognizing that language development and exposure to articulate and fluent spoken language are very important in the early years. At the same time, let’s apply this knowledge with some sensitivity. Think about times when you are working at something that requires concentration and focus of attention.  How well are you able to get work done or learn something when someone is constantly talking at you?

When you recognize that young children need to concentrate on simple activities like brushing their teeth, putting on socks, or putting away their toys, you start to notice that this incessant talking is distracting.  In fact, young children are so cued in to language that, when we talk, they tend to stop everything and focus on our faces, our mouths.  When we watch what this constant talking does to their ability to focus on something, we begin to realize that it is not always helpful for their development.

Talking is not the only way we interrupt the young child’s concentration, but it is a very common one in these times. Let’s notice when our young child is concentrating on something, even if it involves an infant putting on and taking off their sock over and over. Concentration, focus of attention and repetition are crucial to learning.  Let’s support them. 

Let’s allow the young child work at activities that hold their attention, even if they’re activities we can do mindlessly while we do 3 other things.  When they are hard at work, regardless of what the work is (as long as it’s not destructive), let’s allow them work to their heart’s content!  This involves important brain development, and the development of critically important skills.

When have you seen a young child calmly and thoughtfully focusing on a (non-screen-related) task? How did you support their focus in that moment?

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