My 2-year-old, Grace, has an excellent attention span. She's happy to place stuffed animals around a small table, prepare an imaginary lunch and enjoy 30 minutes of good food and one-sided conversation.
A few minutes ago she asked for crayons. I fetched a coloring book and a ziplock-full of broken, de-papered crayon shrapnel. I told her not to dump the crayons on the floor. "Just reach into the bag and take what you need. Okay?" "Uh-huh."
Great. I rushed into my home office and started working on this very article. A minute-and-a-half later Grace walked in. "Done," she said. Every crayon stub was in the baggie, which she clutched in her right hand like a purse. Grace is quite tidy, remarkably so for a 2-year-old. But it would be even better if she could've occupied herself for more than 90 seconds.
"What do you want to do now?" I asked.
She pointed through the wall toward the far corner of the living room, where the TV lives. She can accurately point to it even if she's upstairs lying on her back with her eyes closed. Her finger is a compass needle perpetually seeking the true north of her favorite TV shows.
"No TV. What else do you want to do?"
"In your room?"
"Okay. I'll be up in a minute."
It's gratifying, I suppose, to place second in her affections, but TV always comes first. Grace would be happy watching Shaun the Sheep for hours.
Ironically, this impressive display of attention span could actually lead to its inverse. Toddlers who watch TV every day are 10 percent more likely to suffer from attention deficit problems, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages children under the age of 2 from watching at all. If we all followed this recommendation, Teletubbies would no longer air and childhood cognitive development would be better served. I'm not sure which possibility is more heartening.
We call Grace "The Charmer." She's very easy-going, doesn't cry much, and generally does what she's told. Once I found her sitting on the dining room table reading a book, but otherwise she's an angel. We were at Starbucks a few weeks ago waiting in line. With a pink purse and a decommissioned cell phone, she stood next to me. I told her not to touch anything, especially the $17 muffins, and she listened. Grace patiently waited in line for five minutes without whining or shoplifting.
In front of us, a woman held a fussy 4-year-old girl wearing muddy boots. When it was time to pay, she plunked the shrieking girl on the counter while, wide-eyed, the rest of us covered our ears and worried about hygiene. Now I had two reasons to avoid the $17 muffin.
The truth is, Grace has been the public nuisance on occasion, the wailing toddler whose parents try to bribe her into submission. A child's attention span is the product of many overlapping factors, including age, individual temperament, sickness, mood, sleep patterns and degree of interest in the task at hand. What keeps a child occupied one month might no longer work the next; what a child can endure after a full meal simply won't do on an empty stomach.
Another factor is parenting. Children become accustomed to our expectations, so if we are consistent and realistic in what we ask, this will help cultivate longer attention spans. For example, Grace knows I'm not going to hold her for an hour at the grocery store because I have a bad back and, frankly, am quite lazy. She also knows that crying won't change my mind or rehabilitate a ravaged spinal column so, for the most part, she's happy to sit in the cart and improvise songs, look for cartoon characters on prepackaged foods, read a book or, as a last resort, talk to me.
For the most part. It's the other part that makes parenting an endurance sport, adventure game and diplomatic crisis.
So, what is a "normal" attention span? The range of normality is quite broad, but here's what you can expect at various developmental stages:
6 months-1 year
Your child is distracted by, well, anything. Every object in the universe is a fresh discovery. There is no difference, from the infant point-of-view, between the Mona Lisa and a piece of lint. Your child might remain interested in a particular toy or activity for one minute. Wagnerian opera is contraindicated.
1 year-18 months
Your child's attention span has expanded to the epic length of 2 to 3 minutes, but she's still restless and easily distracted. She will happily take part in structured activity until someone knocks at the door, the wind blows gently or someone blinks too forcefully. The Golden Rule: never bother a small child who's employed in any activity whatsoever. If your child is hugging a stuffed animal, for example, don't look at her, don't talk to her, and, whatever you do, don't say how cute she looks doing it. This will make her stop hugging the stuffed animal and the cuteness will abruptly end.
18 months-2 years
By this age, your child will really enjoy sitting in a shopping cart for 30 minutes or attending an educational lecture. Sorry, that was cruel. Attention spans are still fairly minimal at this age, though your child will play, with you or on her own, for 10-minute intervals. (Like I said, Grace can entertain herself for 30 minutes, but sometimes it's closer to 30 seconds.) Your child does not enjoy shopping unless you're shopping for candy, toys or something sharp or fragile that she will, with the many-armed dexterity of a Hindu god, try to grab from the shelf.
Your child will focus on a single activity for 15 minutes or more, even if interrupted or exposed to new stimuli. Her attention span has improved but is still relatively limited. Grace is content to stand still and watch her sisters play soccer … until the moment she tries to run on the field and join the game.
Toddlers are relentlessly curious. They want to explore, discover and keep moving, which is their way of understanding the world. They need our support and encouragement in this, but of course there's more to it. It's equally critical that we foster inner-directed qualities. Toddlers need help learning to slow down, calm down and devote attention to a single task. They will need both skill sets when they enter the forbidding kingdom of school. Here, they'll need to be patient, reflective and detailed-oriented to succeed academically and behaviorally, but they'll also need to be confident, vigorous and outgoing to excel socially.
I shut down the computer and climb the stairs. Grace is playing with Mr. Monkey and Mrs. Duckworth, who are seated around a blue Ikea table.
"Should I make tea?" I ask.
Grace wants you to play, but she doesn't want to let you play. Your role is to sit and watch.
"How are your friends today, Grace?"
"Good. Happy day."
"Mr. Monkey wants another banana."
Grace puts her head on my leg and smiles, the special moment broken only by the snot trailing from her nose. Sometimes, all she wants is someone to talk to.
Andrew Madigan lives in Springfield with his wife Maura and three daughters, Annie, Kate and Grace. He spent the last 20 years working his way around the world, with stops in Dubai, Tokyo, the UK, Korea, New York, Okinawa, Al Ain, St. Louis and exotic Northwest Ohio. He's a freelance writer who's currently trying to sell a novel, so if you own a publishing company and would like to buy his book, for an enormous sum of money, please contact him.