The habit of paying attention (or not) and the role of eating in forming it (or not)

Dec 4, 2009 by

Would you say your child is usually:

• Focused on what she is supposed to be doing at any given moment?

• Fully present or mind elsewhere?

• Interested in what you or teachers present to him?

• Bored and disengaged by school work or healthy meals?

• Easily distracted and has difficulty in paying attention?

• Ready to do what it’s time to do?

Maybe it’s not just those preservatives and food additives that are causing attention deficit in kids. Whether you child generally pays attention and is interested in what’s going on or whether instead he is habitually inattentive and bored can be largely a matter of training and habit. Functioning in a continual state of distraction instead of focus can be the result of conditioning.

It depends on a few simple differences in tactics, including at the dinner table.

In what ways are we building the habit of not paying attention in our children through the way we feed them? Let’s compare two scenarios:

The Smith family

The Smiths are having meatloaf, like they do every Monday night. The children just had some chips and soda a short time before the meal, so they aren’t very interested in dinner. Their thoughts are on getting back to the TV and video games. They refuse to eat the canned corn, so Mom tells them they won’t get dessert unless they do.

The baby isn’t hungry either, but by Mom’s pretending the spoon is an airplane and turning on the TV, he is distracted enough from the food itself that he allows a few bites to pass his lips.

The older kids eat a few bites of their dinner, distracted also by the TV and motivated by the promise of dessert. Generous portions of dessert follow.

The youngsters are not worried about getting hungry later. Before bed, they’ll find some more chips or cookies or make themselves peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches.

The Jones family

The Joneses are eating an Asian style shrimp and cabbage salad. It’s the first time they’ve had it. It smells, looks and tastes yummy and is a bit different from anything they’ve had before. They’re used to trying new things, so they’re open to it.

The children had a little snack right after school, but nothing since then, and by now they’re also hungry. They know that dinner is the time to eat, that no snacks will be available once they leave the table, other than maybe a piece of fruit or some yogurt if they stay up late.

They taste the new dish with interest, and fill and refill their plates themselves from what’s on the table, till their plates are empty and their stomachs are full. The TV is off, and they chat about the day. Nobody tells anybody to eat anything.

Mom asks them if they can guess what is in the main dish and tells them how she found or prepared the unusual new ingredient that gives it a unique taste.

Even the baby knows it’s up to her to eat what she needs; Mom and Dad don’t coax her. Because she’s used to eating at certain times and not in the habit of random snacking, she’s intent on her meal. When she balks at the final bites and starts to throw food, Mom whisks it away. The kids don’t get the munchies later because they’ve been well nourished by their meal.

Clearly, one situation provides the structure and habits that lead to healthy, normal eating. The chaos, distraction and food boredom in the other home leads the focus away from the meal itself and results in malfunctioning appetites.

In the same style, in the classroom, we train children in the habit of being attentive or distracted.

Teachers can either:

• Review the same facts or materials for those who didn’t listen the first time or two with the goal of getting it into their heads

• Allow children to be passive receptacles, taking in a little here and there without effort

• Focus on dry facts, such as what year a certain battle happened or the name of a book character

• Water down material so it will be “easier” and make a game out of memorizing the facts

• Offer rewards and incentives for retaining the facts, which won’t go down otherwise

• Fill any down time with entertainment and distractions


• Establish a classroom habit of presenting material only once, so they’re always learning new things

• Hold children accountable for the material after one exposure to it

• Require children to assimilate the material through active and productive responses to it (discussion, writing, retelling)

• Present facts connected to ideas and stories that stimulate thinking and emotions

• Challenge students’ thinking and abilities

Related posts:

“The Perils of Monday Meatloaf”

“Eating Mindfully: How to keep your kids from getting fat”

“Single-Minded, whole-hearted attention to eating”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 3 December 2009 / All rights reserved

This post was featured in the Charlotte Mason blog carnival on Feb. 2, 2010.