Parents who want to raise children with good attention spans should focus on them as well, a new U.S. study says.
Many of the skills children learn while growing up are obtained through interactions, but their attention spans have been believed to be more personal until today.
The study of Indiana University Bloomington is perhaps the first to illustrate that attention spans may be influenced by the kind of attention children get from caregivers such as their parents.
Researchers Linda Smith and Chen Yu worked with infants between the ages of 11 and 13 months along with their parents. They were placed in a free-play environment with participants wearing head-mounted cameras to keep track of their focus.
While the children's tasks were to play with three toys, parents weren't given any special instructions on encouraging a more natural interaction.
Based on the analysis, at 58.58 switches per minute, parents tended to have a faster shift of gazes than their children at 30.57 switches. Furthermore, the tots spent more time looking at the objects than their parents, which suggests they were actively engaged in their playing.
When the children's attention spans were measured, they spent 2.3 seconds longer on the object, even if the caregiver was no longer paying attention if both of them looked at the same object for 3.6 seconds.
While these seconds seem short, they are actually four times longer than in instances when caregivers shifted attention very quickly.
The researchers can't stress enough the importance of good attention span.
"The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones," said Yu.
With regard to the impact of parents' engagement on children's attention span, the researchers discovered that kids whose caregivers were the least engaged during free play had the shortest attention span. These caregivers were more likely to be doing something else or didn't respond to the children during the exercise.
However, parents who took the lead or who ended up showing off their parenting skills also had children who had short attention spans.
"When you watch the camera footage, you can actually see the children's eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents' shoulders — they're not paying attention at all," expressed Yu.
So, how can parents improve their children's attention span? Based on the study, sensitive parents win by letting their children take the lead.
The study is now available online in Current Cell Biology.