KIDS
May 9, 2016

Distracted Parents, Distracted Kids

Children's ability to pay attention is at least partly a reflection of how well their parents focus on them.

Your child's short attention span may be more a reflection of your own wandering mind than you'd like to think. And if you’ve ever wondered if there’s anything you can do to help your child pay attention better, the answer is yes, but it helps to start when they’re pretty young.

Babies follow their parents’ leads when it comes to paying attention, according to a new study that used eye-tracking technology to monitor the gazes of parents and their one-year-old babies.

Attention was previously thought to be something that’s inborn. But attention, too, seems to be a skill that can be passed from one person to another, at least in a parent-child relationship.

Researchers were looking for any relationship between the parents’ and the kids’ gazes, and they found a fascinating one: When a parent looked at an object, the child would follow suit. And the longer the parent held his or her gaze on an object, the longer the infant did, too. The infant would continue to hold his or her gaze on the item even after the parent’s gaze left it.

“When parents play with objects with their children, they extend in time the duration of the infant's attention to the object, and the infant then sustains attention after this point, on their own,” said study author, Chen Yu, in a news release.

The findings are surprising, since attention was previously thought to be something that’s inborn. But attention, too, seems to be a skill that can be passed from one person to another, at least in a parent-child relationship.

“This effect, [of a parent's focused attention] day in and day out in an infant's life, may be the source of strong skills in sustained attention and concentration,” added co-author Linda Smith.

“Showing interest in what your child is interested in playing can support and train children to sustain their attention, which may have dramatic long-term effects in their cognitive development.”

The beneficial effect of sustained attention may be related to the fact that distracted parenting (like that which comes from constant use of smart phones) is known to be disruptive to a child’s well-being. It’s not hard to imagine that when parents are perpetually distracted themselves, it not only affects how important a child feels, but also the child’s own ability to pay attention.

The findings are useful for parents for a couple of reasons. According to Yu, they demonstrate that social context and interaction affect attention and that a child's attention can be nurtured. “Showing interest in what your child is interested in playing can support and train children to sustain their attention, which may have dramatic long-term effects in their cognitive development.”

The team next plans to study how other ways of interacting with objects, like touching and talking about it, might also affect a child’s attention, and how all of this might work in terms of the child's long-term development.

No matter what age your child is, try to be a good model of attention. Even if you have trouble with it yourself, intentionally focus on an object or a topic for a little longer than you normally would; make yourself pay a little more attention when playing with your baby, and maybe your child will absorb that habit over time.

The study was carried out at Indiana University, Bloomington and is published in the journal Current Biology.

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