This is a new series in which we try to better prepare ourselves as parents for the rigors of growing our gorillas. We feel that as parents the task of parenting is often left without any kind of particular direction and we’ve mused extensively on the directions we would like to go in. Hopefully our thoughts can help you to shape your own thoughts about parenting, an important but generally untaught skill.
The essential takeaway that I want for all the kids this unit is that focus is something we develop. It is not something inbuilt. We are not born with amazing focus. Some may have a little more than others but it is without a doubt something we increase with our actions and choices.
As a parent it’s our job to make choices for our children. The very reason that age is a factor in a court of law is respect for the notion that below a certain age-range children are not capable of making informed choices. You need to make choices for them that will ensure character growth that will bring them to their goals later in life. We are not our children’s friends; we are their caretakers during the time when they cannot care for themselves. All people, children and adult, require the feeling of autonomy and attention, but in the case of children, unlimited autonomy is literally against the law for a reason. Their autonomy/choices need to be attenuated at every step to ensure safety minimally, and excellent character growth maximally.
We should choose the activities that will develop focus. More often than not they will not gravitate towards such activities on their own.
Screen time does not develop focus. All forms of screen time have been developed by addiction experts, reverse-engineering their knowledge of psychology to ensure that screen time increases despite the possibilities of being pulled away. They want screen time (video games, cartoons, whatever) to be so engaging that you might elect to pee your pants rather than step away. We could quibble over addictiveness vs. quality of programming but the reality is in 2021 every media industry has engaged addiction experts already and they know what will make them billions of dollars. Underestimate them at your own peril.
Books will develop focus. The more you read, the more you get. This principle is well understood in higher education. On the way to my masters, I was tasked with reading at least two 400-page books per week. It’s nearly an impossible task. You learn to read faster, to collate data faster, to separate the unimportant from the important, and all of this requires and builds focus. It was like doing hundreds of push-ups for my mind and much of the data is gone now but the focus remains. And that focus can be spent on anything. If a professor had not told me to read books at that pace, I could never have managed that pace on my own. Consequences, perceived and real, drove me to develop greater focus.
You say you want your kids to choose: great! Let them be who they want to be: great! However, they know almost nothing about the world or what possibilities exist. Your job is the gift of focus right now. Grow the garden of their minds to include focus so that when they are all adults, they can make good on the things they want to do.
Another big takeaway I’m throwing at the kids, clever is common. Cleverness and intelligence are cheap commodities. I’ve met loads of clever people. Loads of intelligent people. So what? Clever is not what makes people successful. Focus, which provides follow through and completion is what generates success.
I used to work in the language acquisition market both primarily and secondarily. One of the least clever people I ever worked with was one of the most successful people. He was blandly speaking something of a moron. That dumbie sat down and authored a series of English learning textbooks for conversation that were rather profitable. The books were something anyone in that profession could have written, but he did it. He wrote them. They weren’t amazing but he spent his downtime focusing on the task and got it done. I met far more clever classroom instructors who could have written better books, who very nearly did write enough material to fill a book but they lacked the focus to follow through and complete the job. It’s all focus gang.
Praise your kid less for being clever. Clever is cheap. Praise them for focus. Push them to follow through on commitments to generate focus. When they are adults, they can take that focus and do whatever they want but hopefully they follow through on their dreams, not spent their lives with ideas they can’t act upon.
One last thing, commitment is the absolute bedfellow of focus. Commitment is what defines focus, it’s the completion of the event. Drive your kids to finish. Let there be consequences for not finishing. Let them feel the failure that comes from their lack of focus.
I have started doing this more and more in my explorer classes. I always assist kids as they try to execute techniques that have been taught but I’ve more and more started to allow my frustration to show and to not mince my words about students that were clearly not paying attention, willful or otherwise. When I approach a pair of students and one student clearly has no idea whether it’s a bottom player or top player technique they are practicing, I know they didn’t listen. I don’t care why they didn’t listen and you shouldn’t either. The lesson I deliver immediately is, “You didn’t pay attention so you don’t know what we are doing. I’m not going to teach you now. You need to pay attention next time or you will not know what we are doing.” I walk off. I know they are upset. I’m not there to be their friend. I would rather hug them and say its ok, but I’ll just be teaching them twice forever. Almost every time I’ve done this, I’ve seen an immediate turnaround in terms of focus. Additionally, those students usually try to show me that they learned the technique they had previously daydreamed through. Without consequences, words are just wind. Kids don’t respect words very much, by 6 or 7 they have seen too much disconnect between your words and your actions to respect your words fully.
Focus will not blossom magically in the minds of your children with age. It will either increase mildly and taper off at something less than spectacular or you will cultivate it actively so that they can follow through on their ambitions as adults.