The Power of Positive Attention

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Positive attention is far more effective in changing the behavior of a child, but a majority of parents, unfortunately and unintentionally, wind up giving more negative attention to their children. Outcome? Many children grow into resentful adults who are defiant and distrustful of authority.

It is estimated that American parents make 13 negative statements involving disapproval or discouragement for every positive statement involving approval or affirmation of the child. This causes problems. Take for example, the problem of non-compliance. Many parents complain about it. Do you know that school children, on average, comply with 2000 spoken or unspoken rules, commands and requests of their parents? Unless children do something really extraordinary, parents usually don't praise or reward them for compliance. Thus, hardly any positive is attention paid to compliant behaviors. Why is that so? Because, parents tend to believe that that is what children are supposed to do--"good children" listen to their parents and follow the rules and desires of their parents.

However, when children don't comply and don't follow the rules, parents sit up and take notice. They take that to be the time to lower the boom and to let them know who is the boss in the house. Some parents initially ignore noncompliance but when it escalates, they punish the child, sometimes severely, thus, reinforcing negative attention. The child soon learns that noncompliance gets the parents' attention, but compliance doesn't. Guess what the child will do more of.


When you ask your child to do something and he or she complies, pay positive attention in the form of praise, smile, a warm hug or a physical reward. Take notice when your child does something spontaneously, that is, without being asked. Pay positive attention when your child does homework, performs chores and complies with your requests or commands.

Provide attention immediately. Specify what you appreciate and be genuine in your praise. No fake stuff. Give your child immediate feedback for how well he or she is doing. Don’t just walk away, but stay and comment positively, using phrases such as, "Thanks for doing what Mom/Dad asked," or "Look at how nicely (quickly or neatly) you are doing that." If your child is performing a task that takes time, be sure to intermittently praise your child.

Praise your child when he or she does a chore without being told to do so. Confer a small privilege for having done this. Your child may then follow household rules without always being told to do so. Also, give special praise and/or privileges for complying with a command that your child in the past has followed only inconsistently.

If your child does not comply, provide him or her "compliance training." You can do it in a subtle way without drawing too much attention to it, for example, using the simple "fetch" commands. Select a time when your child is not absorbed in an interesting activity, and ask him or her to do such minor favors as, ""Would you pick up that spoon, please?" or, "Would you pass the salt please?" Ask five or six of such favors in a row in a matter of few minutes. As your child does them, be sure to praise him or her for doing these favors for you. Because the requests are simple, most children, even the non-compliant children are likely to oblige and thus have a chance to win the praise for "being good."

How parents give commands determines whether the child will follow it or not. When you give a command, make sure that you mean it. Never give a command that you do not intend to follow up to its completion. When you make a request, plan on backing it up with appropriate consequences, both positive or negative, to show that you mean what you have said.

Do not present the command as a question or favor. State the command simply, directly, and in a businesslike tone of voice. Do not give too many commands at once. Most children are able to follow only one or two instructions at a time. These commands should be real specific. If the task you want your child to do is complicated, break it down into smaller steps and give only one step at a time.

Make sure the child is paying attention to you. Be sure that you have eye contact with the child. If necessary, gently turn the child’s face toward yours to ensure that he or she is listening and watching when you are giving the command.

Reduce all distractions before giving the command. Often, parents try to give instructions while a television, stereo, or video game is on. This way you can't have your child's full attention. Either turn off these distractions yourself or tell the child to turn them off before giving the command.

Ask the child to repeat the command. You don't have to do it for each request, but do it if you are not sure your child heard or understood the command. Children with a short attention span are more likely to follow it through if you have them repeat the command.

Make a chore card. If your child is old enough, make up a chore card for each chore on a 3 x 5 card. List on this card the steps involved in correctly doing that chore.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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