Dear Mr. Dad: My two-year-old daughter constantly wants me to stop what I’m doing and look at her—especially if I’m in the middle of doing something. I try to be encouraging, but it seems to me that a lot of what she’s doing isn’t terribly special. I’m concerned that if I get excited about every little thing she does, I’ll be inflating her ego. Sometimes I ignore her, but that just makes her more insistent and, frankly, obnoxious. I have two questions: Why is she doing this? And how should I respond to her incessant pleas for attention?
A: Like it or not, you’re going to be hearing the phrase, “Look at me!” quite a bit for the next few years. Most of the time, your child is trying to attract your attention either because she wants to get your approval for something she’s doing or because she wants to get you to look at something she finds interesting. In both situations, it’s important that you respond quickly and positively—even if, as you say, what she wants you to look at doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy.
The reason for this is that the more you respond to her, the more cooperative she’ll be when you want her to do something later, according to researcher Marie-Pierre Gosselin. In addition, the way you respond to her will influence the way she tries to get your attention in the first place.
As you’ve already noticed, the fastest way to get your child to want to interact with you is to ignore her, either deliberately or simply by turning your attention to something else, whether that’s a phone call, a crossword puzzle, a TV show, or any other activity. Toddlers whose parents respond positively to their child’s requests to “Look at me!” tend to employ what Gosselin calls “high-quality attention-seeking behaviors,” such as laughing, smiling, and saying “excuse me.” Toddlers whose parents are slower to respond or less attentive use “negative attention-seeking behaviors,” like crying, screaming, or grabbing the remote out of Mom’s or Dad’s hands and throwing it across the room.
Now is the time to start giving your child some strategies for attracting your attention when you’re occupied. For example, she’s old enough now to learn that if she wants to talk to you or show you something, she should politely say, “Excuse me.” If that doesn’t work, she should add a few gentle hand squeezes. Whenever she does either of these things, you must respond quickly and positively.
If you’re in the middle of something that can’t be interrupted, respond to your child’s attempts to break through by gently squeezing her hand (unless you smell smoke, in which case, all bets are off). That tells her that you know she wants to say something but that you need a bit more time.
Avoid responding verbally, however, because in her mind, the fact that you stopped whatever you were doing to tell her that she shouldn’t interrupt you is proof that interrupting works. Sounds a little twisted, but welcome to the mind of a toddler.
Previously published on Mr. Dad