What Are You Paying Attention To?

I was listening to Being (formerly Speaking of Faith) the other day and Jon Kabat-Zinn was talking about mindfulness, and the importance of helping kids learn to pay attention. Actually this is a skill they already know, and we can learn from them, but we can also help them have a greater awareness of where their attention is going. He said [paraphrased], “We think we’re teaching kids, but really we just yell at them for not paying attention. The fact is that they are paying attention, just to something other than what we want them to.”

This led me to think about the times I have asked, and asked again, and then yelled, for my kids to Put your shoes on already! I’ve recently shifted that somewhat, because it was making me unhappy and them unhappy and it wasn’t all that effective. Now the girls have lists each morning so they can check things off as they complete them. I’ve laminated them so they’re reusable too. So now it’s their job to manage their time. But sometimes, they get into playing with a toy, or reading a book, and instead of ordering them around, effectively taking their responsibility away from them, I ask them, “What are you focusing on right now?” to which I will sometimes add something like, “Because it looks like you’re not sure what to do next” [if they’re staring into space]. It is a more pleasant redirect, because they will say “oh yeah, teeth brushing” or “I can’t find my shoes.”

I end up saying this probably 2-3 times each morning. It’s possible that they find this repetition deeply annoying—indeed I feel like a broken record—but I’m hoping it acknowledges, ever so slightly, that they are always paying attention to something, and some of those things will move them forward in the morning and some of them won’t.

It’s not exactly Jon Kabat-Zinn but it sure beats yelling.

12 thoughts on “What Are You Paying Attention To?

  1. Susan

    Wish I had figured this out when my children were as young as yours are. Speaking to them in a way that let them know that they are in charge of their time and choices was key to stopping the nagging in our house. It continues to be useful today, even when they are teenagers! Good job MA!

  2. anne

    still recall the mental list our kids used in the mornings when they were much younger: “hair, teeth, bed, jobs, tidy room.” looking back on it i’m amazed that it doesn’t say anything about getting backpacks ready for the day.
    i guess it’s about time for me to go do hair, teeth, bed, jobs, and tidy room now.

    1. MaryAnn

      Be aware that in our house at least, part of the fun of the laminated list is exciting marker colors and the freedom to make marks other than checks on it.

  3. Rachel Heslin

    Hunter begged me for lists of morning and evening To Dos after seeing mine (nothing so fancy as laminated, though), and it really does help.

    But (and this taps into your entry on shame, too) I find myself castigating him for “being distracted” to the extent that, whenever he notices me noticing that he’s playing with his Hot Wheels rather than putting on his socks, he jumps up guiltily and hurriedly explains that he “got distracted.”

    See, he gets that from his mom. I’m constantly castigating *myself* for “being distracted,” and he’s picked up that this is a Bad Thing. I don’t like Bad Things. I *much* prefer reframing it as merely being aware of the focus of our attention, followed by asking if it is where we really want to be focused. I’m going to see how I can incorporate this into my life as a whole and see how it changes both my productivity and my stress levels.

    1. MaryAnn


      This is why the Christian contemplatives (and contemplatives in general) are so instructive for me. When you do meditation or centering prayer, these folks are very clear that you WILL get distracted. When your mind wanders, they say, not if, just acknowledge it and bring your awareness back to… whatever it is (breathing, a mantra, etc.) Even if you have to do that 10,000 times.

      And I frequently do.

      1. Rachel Heslin

        FWIW, this is how I set up his checklists.

        What I modified was adding more specifics of what “cleaning the livingroom” etc. entailed. It’s helpful and a step in the right direction, but I keep thinking about one of your entries from a month or two ago that pointed out how much doing things half-assed robs us of opportunities for joy.

        See, something I see as one of my failures works in progress as a parent is that I don’t put enough energy into cleaning with him. I know that, if we do it together, it becomes a game, and not only does cleaning become more fun, but he starts to associate putting things in their proper places neatly with warm fuzzy emotions of spending time together and working with Mama. But to be honest, by the end of the day, I get tired and cranky and don’t really want to help him put away his mess (although I’m sure those of you with more than one child are rolling your eyes at my wussiness over just one kid’s mess.)

        I’m working on it.

  4. Rachel Heslin

    This entry is also good for me because I’ve been meaning to redo Hunter’s evening checklist to include more specifics as to what he needs to look for when “cleaning his room” (listing toys, books, things that belong in other rooms, etc.) and I’m finally doing it.

  5. sko3

    interesting. So far, things aren’t too bad, but there’s only one of them and she’s very routine oriented. She actually remembers the order of what to do far better than me (thank goodness, or her teeth would be falling out.)


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