A Parent’s Full Focus Is a Form of Love

An editor I know takes her work home (and who doesn’t these days?). She too often sits for hours in front of her laptop trying to keep up with her workload, while also trying to keep an eye on her 3-year-old.

And that toddler, whenever she has the chance, closes the lid of the laptop.

That gesture symbolizes a battle children fight daily for full attention from parents. Having a parent look you in the eye, watch you do a somersault, or just listen fills a deep need in children: it’s reassurance that someone cares.

Every child, developmental experts tell us, wants to feel that someone attunes to them, senses their feelings, and will take care of their needs. The British child psychiatrist John Bowlby called this a “secure base,” and saw that having one let a child explore the world: learn, take risks, attempt something new. That secure base represents a safe haven, a place to return to when things out there get scary or overwhelming.

Children who have that secure base, who know someone attunes to them and cares, are most ready to learn by the time they get to school: they can pay attention to the teacher, better manage their impulses, grasp the concepts they are learning.

Earlier in life, as toddlers, studies find, when a grown-up and a toddler share full attention to a third thing — say, the word for that animal over there — that is when the toddler’s brain best registers that new word.

And its not just kids who need attention — love manifests as full focus. It says, silently, I am here for you. We all crave it from the people in our lives who matter most.

But attention is a fixed mental capacity. We only have so much to give. The challenge for parents: make sure enough of that precious commodity is going to your child — and to each other.

Mutual focus — paying attention to each other — is the key ingredient in rapport. We can’t have chemistry with someone without such full focus. And given the zillion distractions we all face, the need to make a conscious effort to create these rich moments has never been greater.

An executive tells me that she and her husband have a pact. The moment they get home they put their phones and tablets in a drawer and spend time with each other. It’s always one of the best parts of her day.

Daniel Goleman’s new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and CDs Focus for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm and Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm are now available.