We Get What We Give

“Mommy, will you play with me?”

My sweet Graham asks this question nearly every day. And being the fool I am, my usual response is, “Oh baby, I’m making dinner…working…cleaning…[insert lame excuse]. Can we play later?”

“Sure, Mommy.”

Much too often, “later” never materializes. Graham finds something else to do, and I keep on with my boring adult task of the moment. He seems happy enough, and I don’t worry too much about it. And yet…I do.

Graham is a free-spirited, independent child, moving quickly from adventure to adventure. One second, he’s playing tackle football with Wyatt in the front room. The next, he’s wearing a dinosaur mask and growling at passersby. And the next, he’s building a bow and arrow from stray sticks. He’s always, always busy, and it’s easy to just let him do his thing. After all, he doesn’t need entertainment. He’s perfectly capable of amusing himself for hours!

But what he does need—and crave—is attention from the big people in his life. He wants you to come into his world from time to time, joining him for some Hobbit swordplay or a Hot Wheels drag race. And he wants to join your “boring adult” world, too, especially when mowing the lawn or cooking is involved.

Graham will take attention however he can get it—positive, negative, doesn’t matter. When left to his own devices, he’ll generally find his way to trouble, and he’s perfectly satisfied when you come running to put a stop to it. It’s easy to think he’s just mischievous with a bold streak of naughty. But really, he wants people to pay attention to what he’s doing. And the more attention you pay, the more you catch him being good.

Christian and I have learned that Graham’s behavior generally reflects the investment we make in him. When we put positive energy in, we get a solid return in sweetness, cuddles and good conversation. When we withhold attention, we get paid out in tantrums and trouble.

The math is pretty simple. We get what we give.

— Sarah