A commonly held belief about children is that they have short attention spans. I believe that this, along with many other commonly held beliefs about children, is false. Here’s the truth; It’s not their short attention span, it’s that you are boring.
Supposedly, kids zing around like humming birds while us grown-ups concentrate at length on our tasks. I challenge anyone who believes this to play an entire game of Life or Battleship (or worst of all, the catatonia-inducing- card- game war), with a child and see who loses focus first. The kids are enthralled. Not so much the adult- our eyes start to glaze over, we check our phones, we start to wiggle, we loose focus and start to slip up, or even, gasp- resort to the reverse-cheat in which one rigs the game not to win, but to lose and have the game end so that life, please God, can finally go on (details on how to reverse-cheat in common children’s games available on request). Watch a typical parent and kid out for a walk happen upon a puddle with a stick in it, and tell me who is bored first.
I suppose this is where they myth comes from; The child’s eyes glazing over during your fascinating (to you) explanation of some rule of etiquette or scientific fact, the wiggling in the pew during services, the losing focus and acting out while running errands. Clearly children can focus well on what interests them and not so much on what bores them. Hey, wait a second- me too! Also, pretty much everybody else in the world ever.
You might ask why I am trying to correct this mistake. I am not suggesting that kids are just smaller adults. There are clearly many things kids are not as good at as adults, and we do children no favor by pretending otherwise.
I want us to get this one right though, because I suspect this mistake leads us in some bad directions. If kids have short attention-spans, then the right thing to do is to hurry to give them fresh stimulation. Hyper-quick-cut shows and novel toys and experiences. It’s not enough that the oatmeal is instant, it needs to have candy that turns into dinosaurs in it. It’s a bowl of oatmeal, for God’s sake, It doesn’t need to do something. If, on the other hand, we treat kids as if they have long attention spans, they get time to and space to explore and learn, and us teachers and parents might give ourselves permission to calm down some, too. Odds are, this is just what they need to develop into someone with the ability and desire to focus on all those fascinating things you have to say.