Softening Our Focus Together
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
One of the most common beliefs about what distinguishes young children from adults is the idea that children have a naturally short attention span. We often think of the development of attention as a key marker of increasing maturity and academic readiness. However, as any parent who has tried to make their way down the street with a toddler knows, children are in fact experts at paying attention! Their way of paying attention is different from that of an adult, though. Children notice everything; their focus is expansive, where ours is necessarily narrow and goal oriented. We look ahead to the destination while our children take in everything along the way. The ability to focus our attention as we grow is indeed an important feature of development. Our adult capacity for tuning out distracting stimuli allows us to accomplish all that we need to get done in our day-to-day lives. We could neither finish our work nor care effectively for our children without the ability to attend to a specific goal and regulate the urge to turn toward every passing butterfly or falling leaf. However, as we learn to focus in this way, we also learn to limit the scope of our view. We miss the passing butterflies and the falling leaves, even when they may warrant our gaze.
The psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan describe the kind of attention that seems to come naturally to young children as “soft fascination,” in contrast to the “directed attention” that dominates so much of our adult lives, particularly in busy urban environments where there is a tremendous amount of stimulation that we must constantly work to tune out in order to remain focused and productive. Living in a state of constant directed attention is exhausting and can deplete our ability to feel a sense of peaceful wellbeing and to find meaning in the very tasks that demand our focus. We all need some time in our lives for “soft fascination.” This is where wonder and awe live. It is in these moments that we feel calm and gain perspective. Though we can’t always stop to examine each crack in the sidewalk or follow an ant along its own highly determined path, as our children do, we can join them in some of their distractions. Children feel the moments in which we slow down and enter their fascinations powerfully. They can sense when we’ve stepped into their world, rather than tugging at them constantly to remain in ours, and we all breathe a little more deeply together.
In the picture book, Wait, by Antonette Portis, a mother and child rush to catch a train. The child, noticing everything along the way, murmurs, “Wait,” again and again, as his mother reminds him to, “Hurry.” Eventually, though, they pause together, and we feel their shared relief and love as the mother whispers, “Yes, wait.”
Author Rebecca Woolf says of children, “We cannot gaze out the windows when we are also driving the car. They can. It is their job to gaze out the windows and remind us what is out there. So that we may revisit our puzzles with renewed hope.”
Sukkot has always been my favorite holiday to celebrate with children, because it offers such easy opportunities to pause and linger together, as we breathe in the smell of the etrog or gaze at stars through branches. As we prepare for Sukkot next week, I wish you time for soft fascination, shared wonder, and renewed hope.