The following statement falls in the parenting sub-category of ‘stating the obvious’, but it bears repeating: kids today have an alarmingly short attention span. Between the normal distractions of life, the rapid-fire hormones (and associated psychosis that goes along with them) and those *&#! cell phones, they often have just a minute or two stretch of time to engage in meaningful conversation.
Kids remind me of hummingbirds – that little bird is constantly in motion except for a few fleeting seconds when it feeds on some nectar at a flower. Even then the bird never actually stops moving; it just hovers and furiously flies in place, its wings a blur. I’ve never seen one land and hang out. Ever. Sound familiar? Hummingbirds are also territorial and have a nasty streak, but I’m getting off-topic…
Being that we are parents and often possess information that is important to our kids’ well-being (although they no longer believe this after age 12 – everything they need to know can be found on YouTube or from that know-it-all friend they all seem to have), it’s important to capitalize on those little pockets of lucidity that I like to call their Moments of Absorption. These MOAs are our opportunity to drive home a point or engage them in some focused conversation. If they’re busy feeding (eating…they’re not animals), all the better. They won’t even notice that we’re getting through.
Parents (myself included) tend to be extremely verbose, especially from the perspective of a kid. In fact, 90% of what we say can probably be eliminated without minimizing the importance of what we’re trying to say. I call this concept The Efficiency of Speech Principle. This ESP (clever!) benefits both parties: it helps us conserve energy and it makes the words we say more impactful. It has the added benefit of forcing us to focus on our goal and it helps us seem more decisive. When we use fewer words there is not as much opportunity to vacillate which makes us better parents. I’ll give an example to illustrate:
Your daughter wants to go to the sixth grade dance. You have told her that she may go if she cleans her room. At bedtime the night before the dance you walk past her room and notice that it looks like an Occupy Wall Street campground. She is busy flat-ironing her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, discussing tomorrow’s dance outfit with her sister. Your reaction:
Before Applying the Efficiency of Speech Principle: “Suzy, you need to clean your room. Your stuff is everywhere! I’ve asked you a million times. Your dirty clothes need to go in the hamper and all of those water glasses should go in the sink. If you organize your clean clothes right after I put them in your room then they won’t pile up like they are now. It won’t be so overwhelming. Is that my black sweater in a ball on the floor? I didn’t give you permission to borrow it! You need to hang it up in my closet. We discussed this already and the way it’s looking now: I don’t think you are going to be able to go to the dance tomorrow. Get these things cleaned up like we discussed so you can go!”
After Applying the Efficiency of Speech Principle: “Suzy, remember to clean your room like we discussed or no dance tomorrow.”
Ah, now isn’t that better? Such clarity of diction! You have clearly stated your expectations and the consequence if your child doesn’t follow through. You were able to do this in one sentence – it did not necessitate stopping mid-point to fill your lungs with more air. Your face didn’t turn red. You didn’t even have to stop moving!
Now, the efficacy of this approach depends upon your ability to follow through on your statement. If indeed your child did not clean her room, she may not go to the dance. If you cave and let her go, this will all be for nothing. She will know that whether you tell her in a short declarative statement or a Shakespearean soliloquy, there is wiggle room. She will then learn the behavior of tuning you out because none of what you say is actionable, so even during the MOAs (Moments of Absorption) your impact will be minimal.
The Efficiency of Speech principle is not limited to kids. We should apply it in our daily lives as well. There is nothing more aggravating than a fellow parent sitting next to me at my kids’ game that won’t shut up. It’s not that what you’re saying isn’t interesting or important – it’s probably both – but the staggering amount of time you’re taking to finish your thought renders it irrelevant. It’s background noise. I cannot distinguish it from the sound of the crowd cheering. No one (including myself) is going to look you in the eye and tell you this, so it’s important to take moment to note your surroundings and the perceived attention span of your audience, then make the necessary adjustments before you start talking. We are not in a classroom with you at the lectern, we’re side-by-side at a field hockey game. I started the conversation distracted. I have a capacity for one, maybe two sentences, but you just keep going on and on. A simple sporting event rule-of-thumb: don’t say more at one time than you can reasonably fit on a poster board with a Sharpie. My attention span at sporting events is limited to reading the clever acronyms people come up with for their fan signs. Then I lose interest.
Have you ever heard the term “he’s a man of few words”? This description is usually assigned to someone who carries an air of mystery about him because he does not speak often, but when he does speak we are captivated because it’s probably going to be important and interesting. This same guy probably pauses for a beat before responding to a direct question, giving the impression that he is actually listening. I know a couple of people like this and find them more interesting companions as a result of their conversational economy. I want to be more like them. When E.F. Hutton talks….
We have become a society that tolerates a rapid-fire, get-your-opinion-out style of conversation. Don’t believe me? Look at the explosion of 24-hour news stations. There are pundits for every topic, and when they amass in a group to debate an issue they end up focusing on trying to out-pontificate one another, rather than discussing the issue at hand. The grandstanding ramps up with an increasing amount of hostility until someone inevitably loses patience and shrieks, “You had your turn. Can I finish my thought?” They cannot stop long enough to listen to what the other guy is saying, and worse, when they do get the floor, their point is buried in a landslide of unnecessary adjectives and run-on sentences.
I think all of this conversation misses the mark and merely creates audible clutter. There’s a better way! For those of you familiar with Twitter, you know that your Tweets are limited to 140 characters. Perhaps we should impose the syllabic equivalent to our speech. Once you reach 25 syllables, you have to stop talking. Our kids will appreciate it, and it will make us more mysterious.