Over the past few months, my daughter, an aspiring little artist, has drawn for me 312 unicorns, with or without rainbows, 18 grey castles with turrets and one dragon. She has passed me an ungodly amount of post-it notes with hearts and smiley faces drawn neatly with precision.
She continually shouts “Mammy, where are you?” as I hide in the smallest room in the house for two quiet minutes. Along with her younger sister, they cry out for my attention amidst a world neither they nor I can fathom or understand as the house became more than our home but also our sanctuary.
Being at home 24/7 has tripled the number of times they beg me to join in their individual little worlds. “Mammy, look at me” or “Mammy, watch this” may as well permanently bounce off the walls until they fall asleep. My attempts to show my interest and envelope myself in everything they do, waned very fast. I am as exhausted as every other parent attempting to work from home, stay connected and comprehend our situation. Connecting with our two daughters is perhaps something I needed to retrain myself in, especially as their demands for attention appeared louder and more frequent.
I have Whatsapp'd my mum photographs of the girls three times. And it's not even lunchtime.
"These constant calls for attention can be exhausting, particularly if we are trying to work from home at the same time," says Dr Mary O'Kane, lecturer in Psychology and Early Childhood with the Open University. "For a young child, every new thing they discover, no matter how minor it seems to us, is something worth sharing. Young children are very egocentric, which means they see their own needs first. They have little understanding that the task we are undertaking might be more important to us at that moment than sharing in their latest discovery."
For many kids, attention falls neatly at the top of the list along with food, water and the usual basic needs. As human beings we seek attachment as a simple but necessary comfort. We are in many ways disconnected from our larger community, classrooms, friends, family and the ever-pervasive warm hugs from grandparents. They fall on us completely for the connections they are missing.
“During social isolation many of us are feeling anxious and our children will sense that all is not well with the world,” says Dr O’Kane. “Even if they are not fully aware of the situation, they know schools were closed, everyone is being asked to stay at home more, and that there is something strange happening in their lives. They are more likely to seek out reassurance, and constantly seeking our attention is one way they can do this. When everything in the world seems unsafe, it is important they know their connection to us is just as it should be.”
We can relate to this need for positive attention. I have called my dad twice today and Whatsapp’d my mum photographs of the girls three times. And it’s not even lunchtime. Our bonds are deep and at times of crisis it’s these bonds which need deepening as we thread the roots of our relationships further into the ground to keep hold of them.
“Parenting is a relationship, and that is why connection is one of the most important aspects of our interactions with our children,” says Dr O’Kane. “Connection is not only important during positive parenting moments. It is essential throughout our parenting journey. It is the glue that binds us as a family and these bonds help us to find some breathing space during difficult times – the days when our children seem to be pushing all our buttons, the days when tempers are frayed, and patience can seem hard to find.”
Balancing the demands of life right now is not the easiest. Many are still working from home – managing households, battling the demands of our children’s physical and mental health, and our own. When our kids ask for our attention at a time that is perhaps not suitable, we edge away from them, negating the reassurances they need and perpetuating a frustration in us to get things done. That is not to say that we need to give in to their constant demands for attention and drop everything. Far from it. There are perhaps a few changes we can make to our routines and rules to bring a balance.
“Often if they think we are not listening,” says O’Kane, “They will continue to seek our attention. Letting them know we are impressed by their latest achievement, no matter how small, is reassurance to them that they matter in the world. By giving them time and attention, we are letting them know they have our love and approval.”
We are not our children’s entertainers, however. There is no obligation for us to give them undivided attention 24 hours in the day. But how can we manage this attention seeking overload when there is so much to do without causing inevitable arguments or tantrums?
For little ones, helping around the house can be fun
Dr O’Kane reminds us to encourage our children to play independently so they learn they don’t need our approval all the time. “One way you can do this is to ensure you have short periods of time every day where you completely focus on what your child is doing,” she says. “Don’t take over their play, but watch them, giving them your full attention, responding every time they engage you in what they are doing. So, you are not entertaining them, instead you are following their lead. They learn that during these periods they have your undivided attention, and then are more likely to continue to play freely by themselves afterwards.”
Our daily workload has increased. The demands from children often mean very little is getting done. Adopting the Montessori method, according to Dr O’Kane, may prove beneficial. “For little ones,” she says, “helping around the house can be fun. Studies have shown that when asked whether they would prefer to engage in ‘real’ activities or ‘pretend’ ones, most young children prefer real ones. This is the basis of the Montessori method of teaching. Activities like spending time together preparing the dinner, baking together, sorting laundry, can be times when you bond together, once you are prepared to take the task a little more slowly.”
In all, a new balance needs to be found when the war cry, “Watch me,” barrels through from room to room.
And remembering that our children are social creatures, battling a new world, as much as we are.