In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself in profoundly different conversations with my middle school-aged kids, only to find myself talking to them at the end about attention. I guess that isn’t terribly surprising; attention is the engine driving middle school, after all. I remember telling my daughter a couple of years ago that the popular kids in middle school are usually just the loudest and most outgoing ones, because that’s the most important commodity in middle school. Can you get people’s attention?
I have enough youth minister friends to have heard some truly terrifying stories about girls vying for boys’ attention in middle school. We live in a culture that tells our girls this is their job- be pretty, be attractive, be wanted by boys- and in middle school they take that cultural message straight to heart, often to detrimental results. Boys are, on the flip side, taught to see girls this way, and so they begin flexing their muscles by assuming it’s their job to demand things, and to be obeyed, and to make fun of girls who don’t add up- and, oh yeah, they get to decide who does and doesn’t add up. Unfortunately for everyone, these boy-girl shenanigans provide dividends of middle school’s highest commodity: attention.
But it’s short-lived. Maybe a girl is cool for ten minutes after sending a picture, but in a week, or even a day, the attention is gone, either because it requires her to repeat it to keep the attention or because it’s blown up in her face. (Don’t get me started on this double-standard. UGH.) You know how it goes. You have heard stories, even if you don’t happen to live in a house with two middle schoolers.
I brought this up to my daughter the other day, just a general check-in about being aware of these dynamics. We talked about how we all have a desire for attention. When you get it, it can be intoxicatingly powerful. But it’s also fleeting, and empty. It’s cotton candy attention: it may taste great for a moment, but then it’s gone, and all it leaves in your body is a sugar crash. No nutrients, no heft. Cheap attention isn’t something you grow on.
The same is true for class clown antics, rebellious gestures, dramatic frenemy fighting, and a host of other middle school mainstays. Attention is the king of the hill, but is it a hill worth climbing?
I wish I could say this is a question just for the tween set, but I fear our entire society is suffering from attention seeking disorder. Reality television stars, sensationalist media figures, shows and movies that continually push the edges of decency and/or restraint. If the baseline is boring, and the goal is attention, it’s no wonder we are losing ourselves in an empty pursuit to become the next most shocking thing. Has America become one big middle school?
Something profound shifts when we become addicted to attention. We set our bar pretty low, for one thing. Instead of virtue, we seek reaction. Think about that- we don’t even seek “empty praise” anymore. Any kind of reaction will do. What a deep dis-ordering of the way we are designed to live in relation to others. Do you know any leader of integrity that seeks reaction above all else? Do you know any healthy relationship that thrives on thrill, whether good or ill? Yeah, me either. The most centered people I know hardly have lives that are going to appear on Entertainment Tonight, or even a particularly interesting Instagram account. Virtue, as it turns out, isn’t likely to have as many followers as one of the Kardashians.
I’ve been asking myself what it means as a parent, and as a person, to dethrone this kind of short, empty attention as any sort of goal at all. Instead of quick attention, which fades and often serves us nothing of substance, what would it look like for us to cultivate a desire for long-term attention, for dedication to building a reputation that can only come one decision and one day at a time? (And isn’t that one of our main goals as parents?)
As briefly satisfying as it may feel when we get attention from our antics, or our crush, or our playground brawl, or even our outbursts, it can’t compete with the pride that comes from knowing we did our best work, the respectful gaze we are given when we treat others well, the look of love in the eyes of someone truly faithful and devoted to you. Maybe we crave attention, but what we all long for in our deepest hearts is regard. We want to be regarded with love. We want to be gazed upon with gladness and appreciation and acceptance. Well-deserved regard is the nutrient-dense feast to our starving, cotton candy-filled bellies.
God regards us this way for free, and without our having to earn it, which is unfathomably fantastic. (I wrote a book about it, in fact…more on that later!) But it’s also something we do over the long haul of our daily lives. We build our reputations by our actions in answer to this one question: What do you want to be known for?