I was sitting in the lobby as a parent was departing with their young child. The parent stopped at the front desk, engaging in a conversation with the adult on the other side of the desk. While they talked, the little girl noticed a slip of paper on the floor, across the room, not far from a waste basket. As the parent continued in conversation, the child toddled over to the piece of paper and picked it up. She started toward the waste can just as the parent finished and turned their attention to the child.
“Come now, we need to go to the car,” the parent said striding over to the child and taking her hand. The small child immediately wailed, resisting the pull toward the door. Unaware of the child’s intention to deposit the litter in the wastebasket, the parent proceeded to cajol the child, exasperated by their uncooperative behavior.
From my vantage point, it was easy to see why the child was being uncooperative. But the parent had not seen the litter, or the little girl’s determination to “help”. It was a perfect example of the importance of attunement.
Had the parent taken just a moment after completing their conversation to observe what the child was doing, they might have seen that the child was simply completing a small task they had independently begun. Had the parent waited a few more seconds, just until that small piece of paper had been deposited into the trash can, I have no doubt the child would have happily walked out the door, all smiles and cooperation.
Attunement is the attention we give the mood and emotional needs of another human being. Attunement parenting focuses on how well a parent recognizes and interprets their child’s needs, moods and emotions in order to respond appropriately. Well attuned parents of infants are able to interpret their baby’s feelings and respond appropriately.
Attunement is facilitated by attention. In order to accurately interpret another’s emotional or physical needs, one must first be paying attention. If we are attuned to another person, we will have noticed what happened and be able to see the context within which that person’s need is being expressed.
Attunement requires our attention, but, as Nathalie Spencer observes, “Attunement is not simply undivided attention; it is both more and less than that. It does not mean a parent giving in to every whim of a child. But it is the understanding of needs, and a response to those needs which ultimately help the other to regulate their emotions and arousal. It is bringing someone up when they need some stimulation, and bringing them down when they need calming.”
Attunement is different from Attachment Parenting in that Attachment parenting uses continuous physical closeness and touch to promote the emotional engagement and connection between an infant and parent. Parents practicing attachment parenting carry their babies in a sling on their body as much as possible. Often they co-sleep with their infants. The physical closeness of the infant to the parent supports the emotional attachment between the parent and child. Where attachment parenting focuses on physical closeness, attunement focuses on our attention to the emotions of the other.
It is easy to miss the cues about a child’s emotional needs when we are not paying attention. This frequently leads to emotional disconnect and frustration, both ours and theirs. With so many things vying for our attention, it is easy to be unattuned to the people we are physically with. Our mobile phones make us always accessible, so we push the stroller while handling the work call – with no opportunity to attune to the child who sees a plane in the sky and exclaims excitedly, “plane!”.
Neuroscience research has confirmed our brains are not wired for multi-tasking. In fact, multi-tasking does not make us more efficient. Instead, it makes us worse at both of the things we are trying to accomplish. Parents who try to multitask while in the company of their children do not give the children – or the other task – the full benefit of their time and attention. Attunement suffers and often frustration ensues.
When choose to attend to one at a time, we stand a better chance of being attuned to our children’s emotional state. And being better attuned – paying attention – gives us a better chance of meeting the needs or navigating the ‘no’. Attunement makes us better informed because we have observed and are paying attention.