What Is Your Focus On?

I was given some really good counsel once to “avoid the evil things in life and seek after the good things.” I think that last part is really significant – it’s not enough just to try avoiding something negative, it needs to be replaced by something positive. That’s because our minds can only focus on one thing at a time, so if we’re focused on the thing we’re trying to avoid then it’s easy to become stuck, fixated on that thing.

My dad taught me this principle by telling me, “Whatever you do, do not think of a purple elephant.” What was the first image that popped into my head? That’s right – a purple elephant.

I liked this explanation:

Perhaps it’s a familiar scenario: a child repeatedly opens a cupboard door even though you have told her—several times—to stop. A field goal kicker misses the goal even when he has thought to himself, “Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it.” Or perhaps you eat a piece of chocolate cake even though in passing through the kitchen, you tell yourself, “Don’t eat that.”

Why does this happen?

Think about how you respond to a negative or inappropriate thought that comes into your mind… Perhaps you reprimand yourself. Or maybe you repeatedly tell yourself to stop thinking about that subject. In the case of the first response, you unwittingly weaken your resistance to such thoughts and lower your sense of self-worth and confidence. With the second response, you unknowingly give energy and strength to the undesirable thought by repeating its image. This occurs because our brains are unable to replace something with nothing. When there is not another thought or activity to replace a negative one, the thought to open the cupboard or miss the field goal or eat the cake takes root because of the image’s repetition in the vulnerable mind. (Bruce K. Fordham, Think About What You Are Thinking About)

Any time you’re trying to change behavior, it’s not enough just to try to stop the behavior – you have to first understand what’s driving the behavior (usually some unmet need, and the emotional response to that need being unmet) and then replace the behavior with something positive (that will meet the need in a healthier/safer way).

The same holds true for kids. If our focus is on what they can’t do, that’s likely where their focus will remain as well, just like with that purple elephant or the cupboard. And if we want them to truly learn and choose what’s right and acceptable (rather than just blind and immediate and thoughtless compliance), we can’t just say “stop throwing the ball” and expect them to understand the reasons for our concerns or to know what behavior is appropriate.

First, try to see the situation from the child’s perspective and acknowledge it (meet them where they’re at). Then, it helps if they understand why throwing the ball is not okay (to the degree that they are capable of understanding) and then we have to tell them/show them/help them figure out what they can do instead.

For toddlers it’s enough just to say “It looks like you’re having so much fun throwing that ball! (which is meeting their need to play, and is a very real and important need for kids!) I can’t let you throw the ball in here because it could break the tv, but we can roll the ball to reach other on the floor (or go outside to throw the ball, etc.).”

As children get older we can ask them questions to help them gain understanding and take responsibility: “Can you think of any reasons why it might not be a good idea to throw that ball in here? What would happen if…? What ideas do you have for other things you could do right now (with the ball or otherwise)?”

So next time we’re tempted to say, “Stop it, because I said so!” we might remember the purple elephant and the cupboard, and be more mindful in our response.