Did you know that sometimes it is the inability to focus attention that enables a youngster to see the world in a creative way? Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor at University of California Berkeley in her book, “The Philosophical Baby” and more recently in a lecture for TED has emphasized the double-edged sword of attention. Young children display what Gopnik refers to as “open attention” – an inquisitive nature that allows one to be open to everything going on around us to find what might be relevant. As we age, all of us become more biased in our attention; we see what we expect to see. This bias allows us to focus, say on a book chapter instead of the bustle of activity outside our window. But focus comes at a price, the better we can focus the less we see. On the other hand, with open attention we can observe the unexpected and be free to let our mind and our imagination wander. Both attentional capacities are important to different aspects of our lives. It is the balance between the ability to focus our attention to get a job done and the ability to see the world through open eyes that provides all of us with a balance between being efficient at work while holding on the the ability appreciate the awe of art or the joy of an unexpected juxtaposition of sensory experiences.
The younger a child, the more open attention they will display. By the teenage years, parents often see a real pull and tug between your child’s desire to let their minds wander and the need to get work completed quickly and efficiently. The irony is that teens who can focus on one task at a time until completion will be the ones who end up with more time for creative activities after the work is done.
So how do we help our children build the ability to focus when necessary yet maintain the open attention that allows them to view the world in new ways and think creatively? It is most likely through the balance of work and play. School coursework and homework provide periods where concentration and focus are demanded and thereby build a teen’s capacity to focus in order to complete assignments quickly and efficiently. That may be one of the most valuable aspects of homework, namely it builds tolerance for somewhat boring repetitive tasks-- improved concentration leads to more free time. Ways you can help your child develop the ability to focus are:
BEAT THE CLOCK - Use a timer to build ability to stick with one task for longer periods – Pre-teen and early teenage years - before beginning homework, ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each specific home assignment they have that day. Then set a timer for that time when the child begins each homework assignment. The goal will be to see if your child can beat the clock but still get the assignment completed correctly and accurately. For each homework assignment your child completes adequately within the estimated time provide an “entertainment award” of equal time watching a favorite TV show or doing social networking on the computer.
Designate a regular homework time each day – earlier is better than later - ALL AGES -With so many scheduled after school activities, many children do not get to their homework until after dinner, when understandably they are exhausted and find concentration difficult. Consider scheduling a slightly later dinner and building in a homework time, perhaps about an hour before dinner each night, where it will be to your teen’s advantage to get as much homework completed as possible to free up time after dinner for more entertaining activities like phone conversations with friends. Not only will your teen be a little less tired when tackling homework, but there will be a built in incentive to do it efficiently. (But please do not let your teen sacrifice quality for speed.)
Now what can you do to also encourage creative thinking?
SCHEDULE DOWN TIMES –ALL AGES - It is important for you as a parent as well as your child to schedule a designated period of time where attention is allowed (expected) to run free. You may think of your time as “down time” or relaxation time. Some adults actually make it a formal meditation time. For you it may be surfing on the web, listening to music (we do ‘play’ musical instruments after all) or just taking a long hot bath with nothing to think about at all but how relaxing it feels. For your teen, it may be talking on the phone or listening to their favorite music. If it is scheduled, the time can be limited and there is no guilt about the time spent. The only thing to avoid during this time is passive screen entertainment because that is neither relaxing nor conducive to creative thinking. The goal is to let the imagination run free.
Tip 45 - There are two sides of attention – one is the ability to focus the other is the ability to have open attention and allow the mind to wander and imagination run free. Neither one is better than the other - balancing the two is the key. Creative individuals are usually those with open attention so helping your teen find a balance between the two kinds of attention may ultimately enable your teen to focus when essential and think creatively as well.
View the link below to hear Dr. Alison Gopnik lecture on many spects of the emerging mind of babies, young children and adolescents. The very last section is where she discusses attention in teens.