“She’s only after the attention!”

“She’s only after the attention!”

I bought a new chair a few weeks ago.

Bravo, you might say and then look puzzled. A new chair? Yes. Very nice. But why are you telling us about it?

Bear with me a moment. It’s a chair I’ve wanted to buy for about ten years but we never had anywhere to put it so it was never bought. It’s that classic design from Ikea, rejoicing in the delightful name Poang. You might know it; it also has a matching footstool. Neither are expensive and so I put one in our trolley on our last Ikea visit.

Poang armchair

Poang armchair

Poang armchair

When you sit in it, this chair seems to be tailored to fit your contours perfectly. Put your feet up and it’s even better. But the slightest movement results in a gentle, soothing rocking motion that is supremely relaxing as long as you’re not prone to sea-sickness. Once the chair was assembled, I sat in it and found myself rocking automatically, and I pulled a blanket over me and felt safe. The phrase “self-soothing” sprang to mind. Babies and small children are difficult sometimes to persuade that bed and sleep are good things, and part of what parents are expected to teach them is a process of self-soothing whereby the children can just go to bed and get themselves off to sleep without the endless round of rocking, cuddling, holding, bottle(or breast), music and so on. It’s part of the process of encouraging our off-spring to be independent beings who don’t need us for their security and sense of safety and comfort.

What bothers me is that it seems to begin at birth. No sooner is the babe out of the womb than we’re encouraged to shove them in a cot or pram and expect the poor little things to cope with it. Imagine: your whole existence up till this point, you have been cocooned and held in warmth and have your every (albeit basic) needs met without having to seek it. Now you’re out in a world where you have to scream to be fed and held, and nothing feels right. You’ve never been alone before. No wonder babies scream so much.

As parents (if you’ve been lucky enough to have kids, that is) you have little or no preparation for this, and if you are like me, you have no one around you to advise except mid-wives, health visitors, and a few friends in the same boat, trying to figure it out and get sufficient sleep. You’re often bombarded by conflicting advice from relatives and from books and TV and websites(when mine was born, the internet per se did not exist) and the most common advice is that you bend the infant to your will, to your way of living. Don’t give in to this miniature tyrant who bosses you around and makes you do their bidding, is the general opinion, and you are told you will “spoil” your baby if you do.

I remember a close friend who had a daughter a bit older than mine, being told by another young mum that the child who was having a tantrum was “only doing it for attention.” My wise friend retorted coolly, “Then I had better give her some attention.”

Fast forward to the present day.

With the internet, cries for attention pepper the time-lines of Twitter, the pages of Facebook and are the staple of blogging. Indeed, to some, blogging itself is regarded as the most vile of attention seeking. I recall TV presenter Andrew Marr saying something of the sort.

A baby that does not have its emotional needs met in infancy usually is damaged by the experience. Bodies can thrive and grow but the spirit can be stunted and scarred by lack of attention. It’s a fundamental human need to be of value & importance to those around us, and when it is lacking, however much notional love is present in a family, there remains a void in the centre of a person’s soul.

I belong to the generation whose mothers were told to feed Baby and put them in the garden in their pram to watch washing blowing on the line and ignore their cries until it is time for the next feed. A friend of my mother’s used to put the pram at the bottom of the orchard, a considerable distance from the house, so she could not hear the baby crying. I was myself kidnapped as a ten day old baby. Obviously I don’t remember it but I do sometimes feel sure that the impact on me at the time has resonance to this day. My generation were not cuddled and coddled and the worst thing you could be as a child was an “attention seeker”, especially if you were a girl. The truth is that there’s a good chance that much of what is going hopelessly wrong with the Western world has its roots in children who grew up craving attention but seldom getting it in ways that fed the soul. To learn to self-soothe is still encouraged by popular psychology that dictates that no one cane truly help you except yourself. I disagree. We are a tribal people whether we accept it or not; we are not built to be totally emotionally and physically isolated. John Donne’s famous words, No man is an island, are true to this day.

So the next time you see someone attention-seeking, whether online or in “real life”, perhaps it is worth considering why they might be behaving this way and what deep need is being exhibited. Compassion for the self and for others might well be the best first step towards healing generations of people damaged by the myths of strength and independence that have filled our national identities and characters and have damaged the souls of so many.

Kindness and compassion. It’s a good place to start.