It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Dealing with the Attention-Hog

Hodgepodge asked what I do with the pushy-needy-demanding prima donna kids, those kids who feel their place is always the center of any adult’s attention, and just hate sharing it. I find these kids pretty tiring, frankly! A day of being the focus of the ongoing power struggle — you must love ME MOST!!! — can get pretty tedious pretty fast. You begin to feel like the stuffed toy on the cusp of being torn to bits between two determined toddlers, each gripping a leg and screaming “MINE!!! I got it FIRST!!!”

Like Hodgepodge, I insist they all share and wait their turn. There are consequences for refusal to do so. When we read stories, they each get to choose a book from the book bin, and each child sits in my lap when I’m reading the book they chose. My lap is prized real estate, and they all love having their turn.

When I have a prima donna (PD from now on) in the group, I make sure that child doesn’t always go first. If they try to insist that their story be first, or insist that they be in my lap for all the stories, or resist leaving my lap when I’ve read their story, I will sit them on the quiet stair. They can hear the story from there, but they don’t get a lap at all. (I usually warn them in advance that this will be the consequence of not sharing my lap during story time. Usually, but not always. Depends on the awareness level of the child. And of course I always explain why they’re going to the quiet stair: “If you can’t share my lap with the other children, you don’t get it at all.”)

There are any number of examples of this sort of interaction I could cite, where sharing my attention is the expectation, and the consequences of refusing to meet the expectation (or even of complaining too much about it) are well-explained and followed through. The idea is to eliminate the behaviour by ensuring it doesn’t work for the child. It’s a good approach.

But, when I’m feeling calm and clear-headed about it all, as opposed to TIRED TO DEATH OF IT, I can certainly see that from the child’s perspective, there’s not a lot of positive in standing aside and waiting.

At the younger end of the spectrum, the other childrens’ needs don’t much factor in to PD’s thinking, but as they get older, the sad fact is that knowing that they have what another child wants only adds to its appeal. So, from their perspective, there are no downsides to the behaviour, and much to be lost from giving it up.

But of course, they are losing out by persisting with the attention-hogging. They’re losing out on a key concept of friendship (and human relations in general): taking pleasure in someone else’s pleasure. Someone else’s happiness makes you happier. And one step beyond that, empathy, whereby your pleasure is reduced if you know it causes someone else unhappiness.

These are pretty airy-fairy concepts to the concrete-minded toddler, though. So how do you turn this around? How to teach the concrete-minded toddler that sharing attention is a good thing, not a loss?

One method I use is the group hug. I am hugging another child, and I see PD bearing down upon me, and I know PD’s aiming to nudge the other child out and claim the premium territory, or, at the very least, ensure that the other child doesn’t get all the attention. I call out “Group Hug!!” Suddenly I don’t just have PD running at me, I have ALL of them. And we ALL share a scrambling, giggling, multi-kissing hug. When it’s done, I can smile at ALL of them, and say with utmost sincerity, “Hugs are so much fun when there’s a bunch of us sharing it!!!”

I organize games specifically designed so that another child is key to a satisfying experience.

“Row, row, row your boat” is a nice, simple one. The children are seated in pairs on the floor, soles of feet touching, legs forming a diamond on the floor. They reach across and grasp their partner’s hands (bending the knees is fine) and rock back and forth as they sing. If I have a particularly PDish PD in the mix, I don’t play with them, so they’re not competing to be my partner. I just supervise (and provide the bulk of the rhythm and melody, ahem).

For older children (they have to be able to jump!), ‘sticky popcorn’ is a good one. The children all start squatting on the ground, arms wrapped around knees, making themselves as small as possible. They’re being popcorn kernels. They we all chant together,

“You put the oil in the POT
and you let it get HOT!
You put the popcorn in
and you start to grin! [Maniac grins all round.]
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle [everyone starts wriggling while still staying scrunched up]
sizzle, sizzle, sizzle,
sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle…….
POP!” [at POP, they all start jumping up and down]
POP! POP! POP! [they keep jumping]

Normally, the game stops here. I call out, “AAAAAAAAND… STOP!” as I hold my arms out then drop my arms and body to the floor, their signal to all go back to being kernels on the floor. Over and over again. It’s a Very Fun Game.

In the “it’s more fun with your friends” version, once I get them jumping, I’ll wait a few seconds and then say, “STIRRING IN THE CARMEL” making appropriate big, sweeping motions for a second or two before calling out, “You’re getting sticky! STICKY POPCORN1 STICKY POPCORN!!!”

Meantime, they keep on jumping, only now, whenever they touch someone they have to ‘stick’ to them (hold hands, or try to jump while staying in contact) until everyone is a big blob. Or until I decide I’d better stop it now before the bounding ball implodes and one piece of popcorn jumps right on another popcorn’s head…

Anything you can think of that would be more fun with a friend… Crafts are another great vehicle for this lesson. So is cooking. And of course, when I see that we’re all having fun during these activities, I Preach It, Preach It, Preach It. “Some things are just more FUN with a FRIEND!!” “Isn’t it nice that our FRIENDS can help us?” “We wouldn’t be able to do this fun thing if we didn’t all WORK TOGETHER!!” “I just love working with you guys! It’s such fun!” etc., etc., etc. (Do I bore them? Dunno. Nice thing about little kids, you don’t have to be subtle…)

The PD often enjoys being Helpful. Exploit this!!! We know that they want to do this for less-noble reasons (to keep your attention fixed on them). That is irrelevant. What matters is that it is usually not too difficult to shift the emphasis from “I’m helping so you NOTICE ME, ME, ME!!!” to “I feel good about myself when I help others.” I like to give the child a job that benefits another child, not me. So, they don’t take their dishes to the sink, they go to the kitchen with the little one who can’t reach the sink, and put both their dishes in. Then I can praise them for being kind to the other child, and point out when the other child now sees PD as a friend and a resource. “See how Zoe is smiling, PD? That’s because she knows that because of you, she will be able to play that game she just can’t manage on her own.”

When I feel that PD is now taking genuine satisfaction in helping the other children, even if their motivation is still primarily that I like it, I move us up a notch. The next step comes when I am able to shift PD’s focus from me to someone else, from getting to giving. “Zoe is looking a bit droopy. I think her cold is making her tired. Can you ‘read’ this book to her? You know how she loves it when you spend time with her.”

The goal is to open the child’s mind so that having an adult’s attention is a good thing, of course, but it’s not the only good thing. That while it’s nice to have the grown-up’s attention, it’s also nice to interact/play with other children, to help, to give love, warmth, and attention.

Anyone else have any other suggestions for simple activities that can get his message across?


August 9, 2011 - Posted by | daycare, manners, power struggle, socializing | , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh, I love the sticky popcorn game!! I am going to have to do that with my kids now 🙂 I don’t have any other tips. I’ve just got my two and neither is especially PD. They are both extremely dram-a-tic about things but that comes naturally to them. (I was not the most subtle child either). But we do a lot of things that involve them helping one another and trying to let them understand that sometimes Mama’s and Dada’s have other things that need tending to them besides them.
    Good ideas though, I am definitely filing these away to use.

    Sticky popcorn is fun. I think I got it from a book of Cooperative Games, years and years ago, loved it then and have seen lots of children love it ever since! Have fun!

    Comment by Dani | August 9, 2011 | Reply

  2. I think I may move to Ottawa, hunt you down and (I’ll hang out at the parks until I see the cute hats you made) and then enroll my children in your daycare. Because you are far better at this child rearing thing than I am.

    With toddlers, I might be. With the other ages, I doubt I’m any better than any parent who thinks about what they do. I always felt pretty competent with the little ones; when my first hit adolescence I was blind-sided by just how totally helpless and inept I felt, so much of the time! (Thankfully, I have three kids, the youngest of whom is 18. I got better with each one, and now that I’m on the cusp of not being the parent of teens anymore, I feel much more competent with teens. Figures…) 😀

    Comment by suzanne | August 9, 2011 | Reply

  3. Science geek moment:

    Alison Gopnik in “The Philosophical Baby” says that children who showed a higher ability to delay gratification at the age of three ended up being more successful in school later on. They put a cookie down on the table, and left the room, telling the child that if the cookie was still there when the reseacher returned, the child could have TWO cookies! She says some ate the cookie anyway, others tried to resist but failed, and yet others managed to distract themselves, sitting on their hands and singing, or covering their eyes, until the researcher returned. Those kids ended up doing better academically later in life.

    I wonder if Prima Donna kids would fall in the poor delayed gratification group? And if so, I wonder if your work to teach them to wait their turn and consider others could have a strong effect on their ability to get through school when they are older?

    I’ve heard of Gropnik’s study, and loved it.

    I can see their being an overlap between PD kids and kids with poor delayed gratification. For some PDs, the issue is certainly that they hate to wait, they want that attention NOW. For others, though, the issue is that they must have it ALL, all the time.

    I absolutely believe that what I’m teaching them now will help them later. Absolutely. Little of what I do is overtly ‘academic’, and that’s a conscious choice. I firmly believe that at this age, it is FAR more important that they learn to share, consider others, take turns, be kind, be respectful… all that good stuff matters far more just now than letters and numbers and shapes. Their basic character matters a lot more than how many facts are stuffed in their wee heads.

    Which is not to say we don’t do the ‘academic’ stuff — I’m a former teacher! I can’t help myself! I love that shit! — but the emphasis is on being nice people. The kind of people who can, you know, listen to a teacher, follow instructions, get along with others, complete a task without being nagged/praised every step of the way. If I help produce kids like that, their teachers will be able to do so much more with them academically.

    Comment by IfByYes | August 9, 2011 | Reply

  4. Love these ideas, thank you SO MUCH. Going to try the popcorn game tomorrow (since it’s raining here all week again, ugh) and I will start right away with my PD making sure that I keep reinforcing the “everything is more fun with friends” notion.

    Glad it was helpful! I find the PD kids a real drain on my energy, so it’s in everybody’s best interests that we get them past it as efficiently as possible!! I also feel better about a problem if I know I have a strategy for dealing with it. It’s that feeling of helplessness that’s so demoralizing, isn’t it? Gah.

    Comment by hodgepodge | August 9, 2011 | Reply

  5. I filed the popcorn game away for future use….Thinking about getting involved teaching Teaching Toddler Bible Time at church and that would be a great game to play when we need to focus (and expend) energy…plus the sticky part would really go right along with many Bible lessons : ) thank you!

    Comment by Lynn | August 10, 2011 | Reply

  6. I have a small home daycare, I love your blog!!!! I think my own child is the PD! Everything from running to the door when other children’s parents get here to needing to be first or the “winner”. I try to be very consistent with him, and detour behavior but it is a challenge. I am hoping he can go to a small preschool 2 mornings a week, to have experiences with other children outside his home environment. (and to give me a break, lol (-; ) Anyways thanks for the good laughs, and being able to put my own thoughts into words !

    Comment by amanda | August 10, 2011 | Reply

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