Parents Should Not Assume a Fidgeting Child Is Inattentive

Walter Rhein
Image by Walter Rhein

Children don’t particularly like to sit still. Sometimes they move their leg, or they tap the wall, or they noisily shift their weight at regular intervals.

This inclination is sometimes a point of annoyance for adults, but it’s important that you think about the child’s perspective for a moment. On a child’s body, there is not one muscle or joint that aches. Not one! In addition to their complete and total lack of chronic pain, they are overflowing with energy and life. It’s hard to imagine what their day-to-day experience must be like, but there is one irrefutable consequence. For children, sitting still isn’t a reward, it’s a punishment.

Getting children to go to sleep is one of the great joys and challenges of parenting. It’s a moment for bonding, for reading, and for achieving a little bit of peace and quiet. However, like almost anything in parenting, it’s important that you approach bedtime readings with an awareness that it’s not likely going to go the way you might expect.


Those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s are frequently troubled by flashbacks of some authoritarian teacher who insisted that we all must sit with our feet firmly planted on the floor and our backs straight.


If you couldn’t hear the chalk squeaking on the blackboard, you knew the teacher’s eye would begin twitching beneath her blue wig and that somebody would be getting the ruler shortly. Growing up under those circumstances has made many of us believe that if a child isn’t sitting silently, s/he isn’t paying proper attention.

In reality, there’s no truth to that at all.

Children are sponges

Children are kind of like little super heroes. They don’t feel fatigue, they can run all day, their stomachs are bottomless pits, they never gain weight, the list goes on and on. Among all their other tremendous talent is the ability to perform no less than 17 tasks at once (maybe even more).

Rest assured that when you are reading to your children, they can be knitting, speaking to their sister, tapping the wall, and coloring in a coloring book, all while simultaneously absorbing every single word you say.

Yes, for you or I, that wouldn’t be possible. But trust me, children can do it. This is why they are prone to embarrassing moments when they spit out a string of expletives in a crowded restaurant. Where did they hear it from? They heard it from you after that time you hit your thumb with a hammer. You didn’t think they were listening because they were watching television while playing with their doll house and wearing headphones…but they heard it.

My evidence

It’s common in my home for me to read a book to my children and watch the film when we’re finished. The kids look forward to the family time of the movie, and it helps reinforce the story that they heard. It’s also interesting to observe the changes they recognize. Sometimes they notice subtle details that have been changed. Sometimes these details are microscopic.

I remember becoming a little upset with my daughter as we were reading The Princess Bride by William Goldman. At first I thought the book was too advanced for her because she didn’t seem engaged, but when I proposed reading something else, she insisted that I continue.

“Okay,” I said, “but you have to stop tapping the wall.”

Maybe she was just emotionally absorbed with the story line, but she just couldn’t sit still. She would roll around tap the wall and she seemed to be paying attention to every thing but the story.

I’m ashamed to admit that I found the noise to be distracting and I started feeling frustrated. “Please be quiet and pay attention!”

“I am.”

“No you’re not, you’re tapping on the wall.”

But she was paying attention, and she showed me just how much.

The movie

When we finally finished the book and began watching the movie, my daughter made a disappointed noise at the appearance of Buttercup.

“What’s wrong?”

“She’s not like in the book.”

“What do you mean, the book described her as a beautiful young woman.”

“No, she’s a blonde, in the book it said she had the hair the color of autumn.”

I was stunned. After the movie, I went back to the book, sure enough on page 54 I found the following:

Her hair was the color of autumn — William Goldman, The Princess Bride, p. 54

Other examples

A similar situation happened when we were watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 version of course). During the famous boat scene, Willy Wonka leads his tour group onto a large blue and white paddle boat.

“In the book,” my daughter said, “that boat was pink.”

At this point, I had learned not to doubt her, but I went back and found the passage just to satisfy my own curiosity.

A steamy mist was rising up now from the great warm chocolate river, and out of the mist there appeared suddenly a most fantastic pink boat. — Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Again, this represented a book that she listened to while rolling around and singing to herself, yet she managed to absorb it with stunning attention to detail.

Don’t assume you know the conditions for learning

The first rule of being a parent is similar to the first rule of being a doctor: do no harm. We all want the best for our kids, so it’s a natural inclination to try to be diligent and provide the best instruction that we can. But sometimes, it’s important to remember to take a deep breath and just let your children be.

Just because a child is moving or they are playing with a truck, or they are watching television doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening to you. This is important to remember both for the moments we are trying to tell them something, and for the moments where you make the assumption that they aren’t listening. They’re always listening and they’re always absorbing.

Be patient, be kind

As a parent, your primary obligation is nothing more than to be present and to be kind. The lessons you impart are made up from your actions as much as your words, and if you’re not careful your actions might convey information opposite to what you intend to say.

Always act on the assumption that everything you say or do will serve as a model of behavior for your children. Perhaps they’re only pretending to be distracted because they know the difference between affected and honest behavior.

So sit with your children and read to them, even if it seems like they aren’t paying attention. Show them patience and kindness and watch how they take it all in as they go on to make you proud.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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