I have some lingering guilt from my time as a public school teacher. I wish I had known then what I now know thanks to the Charlotte Mason philosophy. One of these areas is how I dealt with my students’ inattention. I assumed that when my students drifted off, they just hadn’t been trying hard enough to pay attention. It wasn’t until I learned about this beautiful philosophy that I began to understand that those sweet little ones weren’t being defiant, they just had never had help developing the habit of attention.
We tend to assume that attention is either something we have or something we don’t. How often do we hear people, grown ups, even, say things like, “I just can’t pay attention for that long?” Not true! They just have never practiced paying attention beyond what their natural tendencies allow. If we leave children to be products of their nature, then we are failing them! What a gift it is to give our children gentle, diligent training in the habit of attention during their early years.
But First, Attention!
First, we put the habit of Attention, because the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention. To explain why this habit is of such supreme importance, we must consider the operation of one or two of the laws of thought. But just recall, in the meantime, the fixity of attention with which the trained professional man- the lawyer, the doctor, the man of letters- listens to a roundabout story, throws out the padding, seizes the facts, sees the bearing of every circumstance, and puts the case with new clearness and method; and contrast this with the wandering eye and random replies of the uneducated;- and you see that to differentiate people according to their power of attention is to employ a legitimate test.” Home Education, page 137
Attention is one of the three habits that Charlotte Mason addressed the most. This habit truly affects how a child learns and functions for the rest of their lives. She makes it very clear that it IS not a faculty. A faculty is something that we’re born with, that we have an inherent capacity to do. This is not a, “You’ve got it or you don’t” thing like our society tends to think!
Mama, maybe you are the one who struggles with the habit of attention. It’s not too late for you, either! I’ve given some recommendations on forming this habit during the early years, but these can be adapted to childhood and even adulthood!
Forming the Habit of Attention During the Early Years
The help, then, is not the will of the child but in the habit of attention, a habit to be cultivated even in the infant. A baby, notwithstanding his wonderful powers of observation, has no power of attention; in a minute, the coveted plaything drops from listless little fingers, and the wandering glance lights upon some new joy. But even at this stage the habit of attention may be trained: the discarded plaything is picked up, and, with ‘Pretty!’ and dumb show (silent show), the mother keeps the infant’s eyes fixed for fully a couple of minutes- and this is his first lesson in attention.” Home Education, page 139- 140
We can either train our children to be attentive, or help them become the opposite. I know, that’s a scary thought! With technology and a society filled with constant stresses and distractions, the average attention span is actually growing shorter! (This article from Time Magazine explains the correlation between technology and attention span.) But if we fight culture in this way by teaching the habit early, then they can grow up without the constant struggle and frustration of inattention.
Starting from infancy, we can help our babies by redirecting them to their toy or activity. If our children are out of that cherubic stage, this still wonderfully applies to them! While you won’t shake a toy in front of your preschooler, you can still see to it that they attend. Charlotte Mason explains how to do that outdoors.
Developing this Habit Outdoors
One of the benefits of working on this habit during the early years is that we can truly give the idea that attention is enjoyment. Since the Charlotte Mason early years involve so much outdoor time, this is the perfect place to encourage children to really enjoy and attend to what they see. Charlotte Mason gave this example:
Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or a buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.” Home Education, page 140
Isn’t that such a beautiful moment shared between mother and child? She gets her child to truly enjoy the daisy in front of her with an elegant description. There is no need to bark, “Sit up straight! No fidgeting! Pay attention!” The child’s attention is drawn naturally to a beautiful and interesting object. A mother’s job is to recognize the beauty in the object and help her child really see it. Charlotte Mason had some more recommendations for outdoor time that help children develop the habit of attention that you can read about here.
Attention With Little Ones
Here are some more examples of what we can do to help our children develop the habit of attention:
- Try to reduce stress and multi-tasking in your home. So much of what our children learn come from the home atmosphere and our reactions to life.
- Explain what paying attention looks like: make eye contact, get rid of distractions, be aware when thoughts wander.
- Limit screen time, as this has been proven to decrease attention span!
- Offer a healthy diet.
- Make sure they’re getting plenty of sleep.
- When babies and toddlers lose interest in a toy or object, redirect their attention back to it.
- When a task is abandoned, encourage your child to return to it.
- Help your child see the beauty in something interesting during outdoor play time. One way to do this is through a nature journal!
- Don’t be afraid to ignore your child’s request to read just a little bit more. Stop when he or she is still interested so they don’t learn to let their attention wander when they’ve had enough.
- Make sure that you aren’t giving directions in a rapid fire. If I tell my child to put on pajamas while she is brushing her teeth, she will most likely get distracted and not complete the first task.
- Try not to repeat yourself, or read sections of a book over again because your child wasn’t paying attention. This teaches him or her to attend the first time!
- Consider not owning too many toys, or having a toy rotation. This cuts down on toy clutter, but also offers fewer distractions for your child.
- Be careful not to let your child get in the habit of following the rabbit trail of their thoughts by encouraging “connections.” (You can read my post about why this is dangerous here.)