How do I write about children's need for attention without remembering my own childhood experiences with that? For where and why do teachers perceive children's need for attention as something negative – something in the way of their learning or understanding human relationships? Surely it comes from the way we have been treated as young children. The repetitive subtle and not so subtle condemnations of the ways we sought attention, where we were thought of as too whiny or too needy. These days self-regulation has become an overused catch phrase that is thrown in to any conversation about children who seek our attention. Self regulation requires small children to go it alone emotionally, and learn not to reach out or lean on adults, who care for and educate them. I think of the sensitive and vulnerable kindergartener this morning during his third morning meeting, where he was required to sit still and follow the teacher directed assignments of the day. Clearly he wanted to share his point of view, became excited and passionate about the topic being discussed, and wanted to be noticed – all at the same time. After three times being told to sit still and quietly, he was sent away to sit alone at a table while the rest of his classmates participated in the story and discussion. He even tried raising his hand out there in punished isolation. To no avail. He was being taught self regulation, and any feelings of loneliness or anxiety about being excluded – well, he would have to deal with them alone. It was no wonder that later, once he had completed the assigned task of cutting and pasting, he would not make any extra effort to color in the pictures he had glued on the teacher pre-cut-out orange and green paper representing some sort of large carrot. His anger was palpable, although I could tell he was swallowing it down into his emotional memory somewhere far away in his brain. I thought about how one day all those repressed and swallowed angry feelings would probably have to bubble up and out somewhere – somehow. And would he be alone with those feelings, or would someone be around at the time to support him through understanding them in time before the veritable storm he would rage? Or would he just become chronically ill allowing those feelings to eat him from within?
There has to be a balance of needing attention and learning to delay gratification and become an adult. I understand that. But this has to be taught through connection and relationship, not by exclusion and punishment. No one is born with that balance intact. Child development is just that – developing, evolving us into the adults we will one day become. As the adults we have become, we can share what we learned along the way with children in our care with love, in friendship, and with guidance and support – or we can admonish and scold with cold punishment and harsh rationalism. It is our choice. We don't have to repeat the pain we experienced over and over again. We can change it, and try something we did not experience but nevertheless, really would have liked to – really have always longed for. Our choice becomes a gift not only to the children in our care – but for future generations.