Age and Attention Span

I've heard so often that children have short attention spans, that I've just assumed it was true and never thought about it one way or another. But a conversation on the topic with a friend got me thinking about what I actually know. I think of babies I have seen, reaching again and again, and again for an object that has caught their attention. I think of my two year old arranging little Fisher-Price vehicles in careful patterns, then rearranging them, then doing it again. I think of a six-year-old friend drawing for hours, creating armies with hundreds of men, each carefully uniformed and armed. I think of a twelve-year-old neighbor spending every available hour of daylight after school practicing ball. I think of my children and their friends totally absorbed for endless hours in an ever-evolving fantasy adventure.

On consideration, I think what it boils down to is that, regardless of our age, we have attention for what interests us. I happen to have a long attention span for craft projects, jigsaw puzzles, up-beat novels, writing newspaper columns. Other people have more attention for sports, spy thrillers, cooking, fashion conversations. We may not understand why other adults don't get absorbed in what interests us, but we rarely think of it as an indication of short attention span.

But there is a set of adult values about what children are supposed to have attention for: listening to adult conversation at the dinner table; learning skills that adults have decided it's time for them to learn; taking in information adults have decided it would be useful to share; playing games that adults think it would be fun to play with them. Not surprisingly, our children often seem disinterested in the choices we've made for them--and don't pay attention for long.

Perhaps, as adults, we've learned to be more patient and polite--to endure boredom more quietly, to pretend to be paying attention rather than offend by showing our true state of mind. Perhaps, even, we've learned to really pay attention at times when we don't feel like it, but have decided we want that information, experience or skill. That's a useful ability to have, and one we would rightly want our chidden to develop. But lumping it all under the definition of attention span, and labeling children as deficient, misses an important point. Most children, in my experience, have just as much ability to concentrate as adults--or more. They just happen to be functioning in a world where they don't call the shots about what's worth concentrating on.

After all, how much attention do we have for their chosen activities? I tried arranging Fisher Price vehicles with my son when he was little. He couldn't imagine anything more interesting, but painful boredom would set in for me in less than five minutes and I would grab any excuse to do something else. I can last at drawing and sports for a while, but fantasy adventures are totally beyond me. I've made enough effort that the children will invite me hopefully into the game, but my attention for that activity is shot in no time and I usually ease myself away. I can just imagine the children watching me go, looking at each other, shaking their heads and commenting sorrowfully on what short attention spans these adults have.