Parenting Via Distraction
As a young parent the only reliable trick I’ve found is distraction. Children cannot be reasoned with but they can be distracted. To be honest, this is largely true with adults as well.
As an example, last night my daughter found a toy and started screaming that she wanted every other toy in that matching set. In reality, she was just tired. I explained why we couldn’t do that, and quickly asked her which of five books she wanted to read. This distracted her, the question somehow filled up her cache memory and the toy issue was cleared while I put her to sleep.
This doesn’t work all the time, obviously. This morning she was genuinely if extravagantly hungry and distracting her with toys or other ideas didn’t work, she just needed to be given her third breakfast for the day. However, in my experience distraction is generally the only reliable trick that works.
It even works if a kid falls on their head. My son, for example, is good at running into things, especially furniture corners. When this happens I do grab him and kiss him and see if there’s any brain poking out, but rather than dwelling on the injury I quickyl rush him to the balcony and show him a bird or something.
One reason why this works is simply that children are not little adults and cannot really be reasoned with. To be honest, most adults are not adults in this sense. A child’s brain is not fully formed at all, nor is their language. When they are young they can neither express nor internally comprehend the emotional stew burbling in their brains. When a kid says something they often mean something else. The need is usually something like sleepy, hungry, bored, or otherwise uncomfortable. They cannot express this need nor can they understand their feelings, so they fixate on something simple, like NO SOCKS and throw a fit about that.
As a parent we more often than not get tricked into taking what kids say at face value. This is a mistake because they’re children. Although they use the same words as us, they are, as mentioned, not fully baked yet and a sentence takes years (if ever) to become qualitatively different to a scream. Hence, as a parent, I’ve found what works the best is to first try and address the need and if that’s not clear or possible, to distract.
The nuclear option in this scenario is technology. People complain about screentime and children and of course it is a problem, but thank God for YouTube and games. I remember my mother trying to herd three children through 48 hours of multiple connecting flights with just a tape deck and one recording of Little Mermaid. God bless her, I still remember those songs but we were all going nuts. Today we thankfully have the iPad and infinite, relatively controllable options on tap. Used in moderation, they are a life saver.
On flights for example, you can immediately use nuclear power. In day to day life they are also there as the ultimate distraction, if needed. That means if nothing else works, or you’re about to go nuts, or if they just have some alotted screen time left for the day. There is, of course, a cost. By using screentime to stop a tantrum or conflict, you are in effect just deferring the issue to a later time. You eventually have to take the device away from the child, and at that point they will likely scream.
My wife’s ingenious solution to this is setting a timer. Kids do respond to clear communication and limits, so if there is device use she’ll tell them how long they can use it for, and set an audible timer. They still scream a bit at the end, but they’re at least prepared and it’s not a meltdown. If she hasn’t set limits in advance, then she’ll warn the kids a few minutes before and then set a timer. Actually, this is helpful all the time. Then you’re not yanking stuff away from your kids, and the timer is a helpful third party which you can point to and say ‘not me’. This somehow makes sense to them.
Of course, like any trick, distraction doesn’t always work. Sometimes your kids are just going to throw a strop. Sometimes you are a screaming child inside and unable to think strategically. In this cases I’ve found what’s best is to simply ignore them. I have at times left my daughter on the floor, spinning in circles like some possessed running man because I just couldn’t deal with it. I still find that better than the alternatives.
The alternatives are treating kids like adults which doesn’t work because they’re not adults and, honestly, most adults aren’t adults. But let me get into that a bit more. Treating them like little adults means telling them exactly what they’re doing is wrong or impractical and asking them to understand or agree with that and to stop doing it. The next step is telling them that the way they’re asking is not OK and punishing them for it.
The problem here is that it is very difficult to replace something with nothing. If a child is asking for something and your response is just no, then you’re essentially asking them to stop asking to eat dirt and spontaneously become a Buddha. As someone that meditates, ‘nothing’ is actually the hardest thing in the world to accomplish, something I’ve only attained for seconds at a time. You have to replace what they’re asking for with something else, and no amount of reasoning will fill that void. First you need to make sure that their brain has all the food and rest it needs, and then you need to fill up their brain with something else so that it pushes their issue out.
You can of course punish your children to the point that they stop asking for stuff. This is possible and liberal beatings have been applied in parenting for generations. This damages them and their brain development in many ways, but I’ll get into the most obvious.
What is the point of disciplining children?
The point is not to win the battle of the socks or get them to not spill food or hit their siblings. Those are all minor tactical issues, opportunities frankly. The point is also not to assert your unquestioned authority because you won’t always be there.
The point is to mold them into people that can delay gratification, that can make and keep deals, that can express themselves, negotiate, sacrifice and generally be healthy, happy and decent human beings. The goal is not to get external reality they way you want it right now, that would be being a child. The point, as a parent, is to help them learn the tools to manage their emotions.
When Distraction Isn’t Enough
So in that sense, distraction alone isn’t enough. For it to rise above the level of a convenient trick, you need to also involve your kids in the reasoning going on. For me that means asking my daughter to take a few deep breaths and ask for what she wants politely. What I haven’t mentioned is that sometimes what they’re asking for is fine and you should just give it. But the more important thing is that she learns to breathe and ask in a certain, controlled way. My wife also really tries to explain why something can’t be done, even if the kids aren’t paying attention. Then she moves to distraction, but the kids can at least see us reasoning in front of them.
Again, the point is teaching them emotional regulation, not winning these little skirmishes, or even preserving our own mental health, or beliefs about ‘how kids should behave’. I’ve found that working on the kids emotional abilities sorts out the other issues in the long-term, and that’s the ultimate goal of parenting, besides survival.
But then, before anything you as a parent have to survive. So in that sense distraction is one trick that I turn to again and again. On its own it works pretty well, with technology it works almost always, and it buys you space and sanity to focus on the long-term work of raising a child that can manage their emotions and not wreck havoc upon the world as an adult. At least that’s the plan.