Monday, March 02, 2009

Attention Must Be Paid

In the old, old days of Sigmund Freud, it was clear what children wanted: Sexual gratification. Shortly afterward, it ceased to be nice to talk about children that way, and ever since, child psychology has been at sea. The closest thing we have found to a unifying theory of child behavior since has been the concept of attention. Children, the theory runs, want attention, will do anything for attention, and if they can't get benevolent attention, will settle for being smacked and yelled at. The quality or character of attention they receive is unimportant, compared to the intrinsic good of being noticed. Children being complex automata, they desire lots of different things. You can't explain all of a child's behavior as attention-seeking, the theory tells us, but you can explain an awful lot of it.

This theory may be right, for all I know, not being an expert in children, or even liking them. But can we please consider how utterly cracked it sounds? The child is the father of the man, but who among us can say we crave attention? Most adults hate public speaking, and what is public speaking if not the receipt of a huge amount of aggregate attention? Shy people hate getting attention, and the most gregarious people would prefer to be left alone at least sometimes. And does anyone, other than those hypothesized children, prefer to be yelled at rather than peacefully ignored? Can you even imagine such a person?

We're always advised to rear children like animal trainers train animals, those other sentient yet stupid creatures. Children benefit from rote memorization, like animals.
Children respond to praise, like animals. But give a dog negative attention, yell at it and beat it, and it won't be anxious to repeat the experience.

Children, this theory needs us to believe, are different from both animals and adults, and even the worst dross is good enough for them. Even if children don't get what they like, they like what they get, and they always come back for more. If the attention theory of child-rearing is correct, I have no qualms in saying that children are horrible little aliens.


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