The Short Attention Span Myth

Attention span is the amount of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted.  If you lost focus before making it to the end of that sentence, then you have a really, really short attention span!  In all seriousness, the belief that virtually all modern children have short attention spans has totally changed our philosophy of education, teaching styles, and curriculum design in the school, and even in the church.  But I say we have bought into a myth.  Worse than that, by buying into the myth, we actually end up turning it into somewhat of a reality.

Clearly, there are some children who have difficulty paying attention to pretty much anything.  Research does show that when children watch too much television before the age of two, it impairs their ability to focus and concentrate later on.  So I get that the inundation of overstimulating electronic media is affecting our children’s ability to focus on things that are not so exciting.  Yet, I do not believe that this has caused all, or even most children to be destined to have short attention spans.

If you have been around children long enough, you actually witness the opposite–they have great capacity to focus on something for a long, long time.  They can play with the same pile of Legos for a long time.  They can watch TV for hours.  They can watch a two hour movie and barely move.  As they get older, they can play the same video game for hours on end.  Give most elementary children a compelling book, and they will be curled up in a corner for a significant amount of time.  Interesting board games or card games can also be played for hours.  So I really don’t believe that our children’s brains have been so permanently re-wired that is inevitable that they suffer from shorter attention spans.  More distractions and less silence definitely makes it tempting to lose focus, but it doesn’t make their situation hopeless.

Instead, I would argue that the modern child has the same need that children throughout the ages have always had–DISCIPLINE.  And I don’t mean spanking!  They need to become disciplined in their focus and concentration.  We can discuss the ADHD child another time, but as a whole, children need to learn how to ATTEND to those things they would rather not, and extend the length of their attention spans over time.  This is a vital learning objective for their lives!  In order to think, work, and act in wisdom, children need to learn to listen, process, and respond appropriately to information.  To simply accept the fact that children aren’t going to be able to focus doesn’t allow them to LEARN to attend.  That’s when this myth turns into reality.

So, Sunday School curricula that only gives a five to ten minute lesson before moving to activity, to activity, to activity are just feeding into the child’s natural struggle with distractibility.  Trying to solve the “problem” of fidgety, inattentive children by bombarding them with images,videos, worksheets, or too many hands-on activities for the entire Sunday School help doesn’t help either.  All this approach leads to is children learning a small amount of the Bible, and just staying busy.  It doesn’t give them the time required to really listen, learn, and grow to love the stories of God’s Word.

What our children really need is to have their hearts and minds engaged by the Spirit and the Word.  Do we believe the Holy Spirit can open the spiritual ears of even our less-than-attentive children?  Do we believe that Scripture itself is compelling enough to demand focus?  If we do, then what must improve first as parents and teachers is our own PASSION for the Word of God.  We must always be striving to teach the Bible in a way that is winsome, engaging, and mentally challenging.  Children can tell if you’re bored or disinterested.  Then, we must also strive to always do a better job of communicating the stories of God’s Word to children.  Our teaching must  be honed and sharpened so we draw their young hearts in with our words, gestures, expressions, questions, and answers to their questions.

Instead of perpetuating the myth of the universal short attention span, let’s resist the culture and train our children to listen and learn the most amazing truths they will ever hear!


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