Monday, March 21, 2011


I've been working around this theory in my head for a while.  Since before I had children.

All children have an  Attention Cup that needs to be filled everyday.  They wake up up each day with an empty Attention Cup and they expect and need it to be filled everyday before they go to sleep again.

The size of the Attention Cup is not constant.  Children go through various highs and lows in their need for Attention.  Generally, the younger the child the bigger the Attention Cup, but some older children have just as great a need for Attention as babies.  There is nothing right or wrong about the size of the Attention Cup.

Babies and young children require that their Attention Cups be filled by their parents and, most often, specifically by their mothers.  Older children, even toddlers, are able to get some of their Attention Cup filled by other loving adults or even by older children.  But the Attention Cup primarily needs to be filled by the person or people from whom the child expects unconditional love.

When a child's Attention Cup is perpetually unfilled at the end of everyday, two behaviours tend to happen:
  1. The child becomes withdrawn and quiet.  She may try very hard to always please other people in order to garner some much needed attention.  Or she may become very dependent on her peer group as a source of attention.
  2. The child becomes loud and often aggressive.  She is fussy, whiny, demanding, rude or highly emotional.
When I was a teacher I used to observe this phenomenon and I wondered why I could figure out what was going on with theses kids, but their parents seemed oblivious to it.  The students who were in constant LOOK-AT-ME mode used to drive me to exhaustion! 

Even now when I am at the playground with my daughters there is inevitably a child calling to me to observe his or her play.  Usually the child's parent is standing nearby completely disengaged from the child by talking or texting with someone.  As many times as it has happened, I am still stunned when a child who has never seen me before is seeking my attention and approval in a public place.  My children would never seek attention from a stranger (unless perhaps there were a serious physical emergency and I was nowhere to be found, but even then, I'm not sure they wouldn't just try to handle it themselves!)

There is no rule for how much attention a child should need.  A child needs attention until her Attention Cup is full.  Only she can know when she is completely saturated with attention.

How can the parent know that their child is not receiving enough attention?  Here are some typical behaviours to watch for:
  • Your child will not sleep at bedtime, even if you stay with her.
  • She begins to have separation-anxiety even if she has never demonstrated this behaviour  before and even if she is staying with familiar, loving caregivers.
  • She refuses to cooperate with common activities such as putting on shoes or going to the grocery store.
  • He starts hitting or biting.
  • He fights with his siblings over things that used to be non-issues.
  • He withdraws from your touch.
I have experienced each of these behaviours at various times with each of my children.  It's odd to think that children who spend all-day-every-day in the company of their mother could have unfilled Attention Cups.  But I can see that at certain times each of them has required more attention to feel saturated.  I have to pay close attention and be vigilant.  And honestly, the more children you have, the harder it is to fill everyone's cup everyday. 

I have learned that it is not enough to present.  I have to be engaged

And when I notice that my own Attention Cup seems to be going unfilled, I need to be active in getting it filled too.  I need to seek extra support from Partner-Guy or I need to call my mother or sister or I need to get out to visit a friend.

How do you make sure that everyone in your family has a full Attention Cup at the end of every day?


  1. Excellent post! Have you read Lawrence Cohen's book, Playful Parenting? He talks about children having a cup that needs filled, too. He says that some cups are sturdy, and can hold onto all that you put in it to be used throughout the day, but some kids' cups are "leaky" and need constant top-offs. (One of my twins, Jack, has a very leaky cup. He needs lots of refills.) Another great thing Dr. Cohen illustrates with the cup analogy is that some kids do fine being separated from mom for a few hours but then break down and cry as soon as mom returns. That's just the child asking for a refill because he's used up what was stored in his cup.

    I'm actually in the process of trying to figure out if Jack's needs are developmentally appropriate, or if there's some deeper birth trauma he needs to work through. I only have Gus with whom to compare, so it's hard to tell.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I look forward to reading more!

  2. What a great comment!
    And here I was thinking that this idea of an ATTENTION CUP was original!
    OK, I will have to get that book--thanks for recommending it.