How children learn to wait for mommy's and daddy's attention

By Maya Risch

Do you keep hearing “Mommy, look what I've done” or “Daddy come, play with me!»? Also ask yourself now and then: Can't my child just wait a minute? Is it normal that they want something from me all the time?? If I give my child too much attention, I have spoiled them?

Most parents of young children are probably familiar with these and similar thoughts. Yes, our child wants our attention and attention - preferably 24 hours a day. Fortunately, it doesn't need this all the time! Of course, it takes our presence and recognition to grow up healthy, but not around the clock.

More important than the duration of attention is its quality.

How is it actually: Can we give our children too much attention and thereby spoil them?? No, we can never give too much attention in the sense of contact and presence, as long as it is real and we don't force it on him. But more important than the duration of attention is its quality. A few more thoughts on that later.

Rather, when we ask ourselves whether we are paying too much attention to our child, we actually don't want to give him that attention at that moment


But have a guilty conscience.

Children want to be valuable to parents

Children so often want to be in contact with their closest caregivers because they depend on our care and feel safe with us parents. They want to be valuable to us and feel loved, seen and heard - as a whole personality.

When the child calls out: "Mom look, Dad come over here", they want us to take an interest and turn to them. It wants us to see what it is doing, what it is already able to do, what it is currently doing or is having fun, or where help is needed. A few moments of eye contact are often enough, accompanied by a nod and an interested “Aha” or “Oh, so big” or “Yes, I can see that you are having fun.»

Because small children prefer to seek our attention around the clock, it is completely normal that this becomes too much for us from time to time. We also have other needs, interests and tasks, and we also have our limits.

Waiting for mom or dad is a learning curve

Can we ask the child to wait if we want to talk to our girlfriend on the phone, read the newspaper or have a quiet chat with our neighbors without being disturbed? Of course! Not only can we ask for this, we should too. It is important not only for our well-being but also for the development of our child that we clearly express our needs and limits. When we clearly tell children what we want and need, they learn that not only do they have needs, we also have needs.

It is a learning process for young children to wait a few minutes and put their own needs aside. Many children cannot do this on the first try, but they can learn if we give them the opportunity.

In order for children to learn this, it makes sense that we start with a really short period of time. At the beginning it can be two or three minutes. This enables the first sense of achievement. After that, the duration can be extended to five minutes or more. Depending on the time of day and form of the day, some children can wait a little longer as a four-year-old without any problems. It varies a lot from child to child.

Prepare children to wait

If we act with foresight and let the child know in advance what we want from him, we make it easier for us and the child to get involved in the following situation. So if I want to have a phone call in peace, I can say: “I'll call my girlfriend now. This lasts until the kitchen alarm clock rings. Feel free to say hello if you want. After that I want to talk to her alone and I want you to look at a book or do something that you don't need me for. Do you have any idea? Do you just need anything from me before I start??»

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If the child comes to us during the phone call despite being well prepared, we can turn to them briefly and say: «I hear that you want something from me. Now I want to make a phone call in peace. Afterwards I will listen to you.»

It is a little more difficult if we do not have the opportunity to prepare the child, for example if someone calls us. If the child comes to us now, we should briefly interrupt the phone call to lovingly inform him that we cannot deal with him at the moment. The best way to do this is to tell him when we can turn to him again: «I see that you want to show me something. I can't look now. Please get something you can do without me. After this phone, I'll be there for you again, but I don't know exactly how long it will take.»

Sticking to agreements is important

It is important that we adults repeatedly realize that our child is in a learning process. This means that it takes practice, and it is therefore quite normal if the waiting or postponing needs does not work out from the start.

For this learning process, it is particularly important that we are reliably back as soon as the agreed period of time has passed, even if the child may still be busy himself.

Since small children do not yet have a sense of time, an hourglass can help to make the time visible. 'Come here, here's an hourglass. Do you see the sand trickling down. As soon as all the sand has fallen through the narrow place, I'll be with you again, »we can say to our child. A TimeTimer is also helpful. This makes the time visible to the children.

What is worth paying attention to

If children regularly receive real presence and undivided attention, with a little practice it is usually easier for them to wait every now and then. If this does not succeed in spite of all the help, we should ask ourselves whether we are really giving him our undivided attention. For example, let's put the cell phone away when it comes to us? Are we thinking somewhere completely different, are we just thinking about what should be on the shopping list or what absolutely needs to be done in the office? Then our presence goes away from the child. It seems to the child that we are disappearing even though we are physically present. It feels alone and does everything to bring us back.

We can still do something to support the child in their learning process and to strengthen the relationship with them. If we turn to the child after the agreed length of time the child has waited, we can appreciate his efforts. Even if it only worked part of the agreed time. “I can tell you were really trying to wait! That worked out a bit. We’ll practice this again soon.“And when the child has managed to occupy itself for a while, we can thank him:“ Thank you that I was able to make a phone call in peace and that you played alone for so long. That was really a help to me. Come on, let's play together now. Now I have time.»
Adults who see, perceive and express that their child works with them and wants to be valuable to them are very important to the children and encourage them to continue to cooperate with us.

Advice for parents and couples

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Practice for relationship skills

The family counselor, Familylab seminar leader and forest kindergarten teacher Maya Risch lives with her two sons and her husband in Zurich-Oerlikon. In an individual parent or. Family counseling or in group meetings, it offers parents the opportunity to learn how to deal with insecurities, anger and conflicts and shows new perspectives in dealing with stumbling blocks in everyday family life.

More about the offer and other articles from Maya Risch.

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