Attention span is the bridge to success

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, September 1, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

Three-ring binder, check. Erasable pens, check. Protractor, check.

This is the weekend to see frenzied parents shopping the school-supply aisles. Children, free since June, tag along glumly or gleefully, depending on age and outlook.

Schools request long lists of items, from Kleenex to hundred-dollar graphing calculators. Moms and dads whip out credit cards, and not just for low-slung jeans or pink Jansport backpacks.

Kids have to come prepared. After all, their futures are at stake.

Too bad you can’t write a check for what they really need. If you ask me, the No. 1 ingredient for academic success is something money can’t buy: an attention span longer than an MTV video.

You won’t find that on any list. But if my children’s habits are mirrored by their peers, a long attention span is something that’s in short supply these days.

I can’t point fingers, either. I don’t have the powers of concentration I once had. And I suspect the same forces working on our kids have done a number on us all.

A week ago Saturday night, I happened to have nothing to do and no one home except my 2-year-old, who was asleep by 8:30.

Good, I thought. I could finish a novel I’d been carrying around since (I’m embarrassed to say) my July vacation. It’s not any 800-page classic or challenging piece of literature. It’s (I’m embarrassed to say) one of those Oprah’s Book Club selections, "While I Was Gone" by Sue Miller.

I settled down to read, only I couldn’t settle down.

Instead, I checked my e-mail. I checked my voice mail. I called my mom. There’s no new car in my near future, but I checked a dreamer’s Web site, I spent more than an hour on the Web, reading auto reviews.

It started as a practical mission; I compared new minivans. Quickly, I skipped to a car I’d want, a Volkswagen Passat. At nearly midnight, I was still online picking out colors and leather seats for fantasy vehicles, either an Audi A6 or (why not?) a $53,000 BMW 540i.

Gosh, I’m off-topic here. Back to school is that what I’m supposed to be writing about?

See? My attention span is shot. Anyway, I didn’t finish the Oprah book that night.

My son, a smart kid starting high school, is in a race this weekend to finish the last book on his summer reading list. He had three required books and a whole summer to knock them off.

Oh, but the distractions.

In his case, a guitar comes first. That’s followed by friends, the Internet, his brother, his sister, the dog, a battered skateboard, scoping out the refrigerator, whatever might be on TV, his CD collection, sleep and finally, maybe, if there is absolutely nothing else going on, the pages of a book.

How can we help them? How can we stuff some focus into our children’s bulging book bags?

Suzanne Krogh, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, has an idea for parents willing to work along with their kids.

"What I did with my kids is to have a time during the evening when we all did reading. I would bring work home specifically for the purpose of doing it with them," she said. "I’d choose things I could do side-by-side with them.

"There are so many distractions today, we have to find ways to turn them away," Krogh added. "Having that time in the evening when everyone, including parents, shuts everything down, that becomes part of the family ethic, the family rules."

Dorothy Matsui, coordinator of children’s services at the Everett Library, said the number of kids in the summer reading program has held steady over the years, "but I think the motivations may be different."

"Some love reading, but some like the prizes," she said.

Approximately 1,200 youngsters took part this summer, either by reading at least 10 books, writing book reviews, or listening in the read-to-me program for younger children, Matsui said.

Still, she believes it’s harder than ever for children to settle down and work.

"Some kids can block out distractions, but a lot of them can’t. If there’s anything else interesting going on in the family, or on TV, it’s very hard to distance yourself from that," she said.

Matsui, too, likes the idea of a reading time for the family.

"Even if you’re not reading a book, do some quiet work or read the paper or a magazine. That would encourage them," she said.

It sounds like such a little thing, a quiet time. That small thing could make a big difference when report cards or teacher conferences roll around.

Someday, long after you’ve finished badgering them to open a book, your grown sons or daughters might actually enjoy the prospect of an evening with nothing to do but read.

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