The multitasking myth.


Why our children don’t hear a word we say.

As women we often consider ourselves to be masters of multitasking. We can cook the dinner while supervising homework, we can talk on the phone while emptying the dishwasher and we can braid our daughter’s hair while watching television.

In order to survive, we are experts at multitasking, or are we?

Research has actually proven that multitasking only exists in one very specific circumstance. Whenever we need to devote cognitive energy (focussed thinking) on one task, the second task we are carrying out at the same time must be a purely physical task that requires little to no conscious thought to complete.

In the examples above, I can definitely multitask so long as certain conditions are met:

I can supervise homework while cooking dinner assuming that it’s a meal I have cooked many times before, I barely have to think about how to cook it and the homework is relatively easy. If however, I was trying to cook a new recipe which required me to concentrate in order to get it correct, my capacity to assist with some tricky maths homework would be greatly reduced.

I can definitely talk on the phone while emptying the dishwasher. It takes me no mental energy at all to carry out that manual task so multitasking works in this example. If however, I opened the dishwasher to discover that the drain was blocked and I needed to work out how to unblock it, I would probably have to stop my conversation so I could focus on getting that done.

Lastly, I can certainly braid my daughter’s hair while watching television. What I can’t do is try the new style she found on Pinterest while trying to hear the latest election news. In order to do the hairdressing task I would be required to concentrate on the instructions, translate that to her hair and try not to make her cry by pulling too hard in the wrong direction. While doing this I would have no mental energy left to devote to anything on the TV and I would have to rely upon my husband telling me about it afterwards.

So how can this information help us?

How often have you tried to give your child an instruction and had them completely ignore whatever it was you have just said to them? I know myself that on many occasions I have tried to get my children to listen to me when they were intently watching a television show, learning to tie their shoe or reading a book.

Considering what we now know about concentration and the brain’s inability to focus on more than one mentally taxing thing at a time, what is that telling us about our children? Basically, if their mental energy is being devoted to a task, they won’t even hear what we are saying let alone respond in the appropriate manner. In order to concentrate on what they are currently doing, they have to tune out everything else, including you. Consider that it is less likely that they are being rude and ignoring you and more likely that you have chosen the wrong moment to give them the instruction. It is also true that the younger the child, the more mental energy they need to focus on physical activities and the less mental space they have available for anything else.

So, the next time you have something important to say to your child, take a few moments to focus their attention on you before you speak.

A couple of simple strategies to do this include:

1) Moving closer to your child- Physical proximity
2) Asking them to turn off the TV/put down their book- Removing distractions
3) Asking for their attention before giving the instruction

“________ (Insert child’s name here), please listen, I have something important to tell you.”
4) Waiting to ensure they are activity listening before continuing

Try this and see whether or not your children begin to pay attention to what you have to say to them. You might be pleasantly surprised.


7 thoughts on “The multitasking myth.

  1. Great post! It always seems like my 3.5 year old doesn’t hear a word I say, especially when busy doing his own thing! Will certainly try your ideas. #stayclassy

  2. Very informative post! My son is still a baby, but I will be using this on my partner. : ) Completely makes sense that we are unable to mentally focus on more than one task. I already do this at work, if I am doing a mundane task, like budgeting in excel, I’ll listen to music at the same time (actually listening and focusing on the words of the song). However, if I have a more difficult task, I’m unable to listen to music! I will be using this technique when my son is older! I think getting their attention first and then speaking would be best. Thanks for sharing with #StayClassy!

  3. I must admit, I am terrible at listening to my husband if there’s a screen in front of me. I do need to work on that.

  4. I spend my whole life multitasking – at least it feels like that. Then I get to a certain point in the day of utter exhaustion and my brain is frazzled I can’t think or make decisions. Up until that point though – all is good lol! #stayclassy

  5. I 100% agree with this. I always ensure that my son is looking at me and actively listening as there is just no point and depending on how he is feeling, must turn the tv off. It’s good to remind ourselves of this too. Thank you for joining the #weekendblogshare

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