The Distracted Child: When That’s a Useful Thing
Anger-free ways to keep the peace & neutralize resistance in a picky eater or other strong-willed child
The other day, I noticed a dad with his toddler on a sidewalk. The little tot, about 18 months old, was trying to go in one direction. The dad, towering over her, was looking down at her and moving right in front of her each time she tried to go that direction. She would move to go around him, and he would step over to block her way, over and over. No words were being exchanged. She had no understanding of why her dad was preventing her from going that way. Dad was making no effort to explain the situation to her. His mind seemed to be elsewhere. Naturally, the little girl was getting a seriously frustrated look on her face. Maybe she was too young to understand why she couldn’t go there, though probably not even. It wasn’t really explanations that were needed, however.
Another time, I observed a mom with her toddler of about the same age. The little guy wanted to get into the cat’s food. The mom was telling him, “No, Chester, you can’t get into the cat’s food!” She would pull him away repeatedly and say “No, Chester!” and he would go for it again. They just stayed there by the cat dish, battling it out. Again, no explanations were given. This little guy was probably even less interested in explanations than the little girl with her dad had been. Like the little girl, he just needed a diversion, a distraction from what he was trying to do.
All the dad needed to do with the little girl was to pick her up, talk to her, show her something interesting in another direction. Engage her, give her some attention, understand her, entertain her. An explanation probably wouldn’t have hurt, but wasn’t essential.
Same for the mom. Pick up the child, go into the other room and show him a car driving by out the window or a picture on the wall, or a toy. Surely the cat is more interesting than the cat food. Bring up a subject he likes to talk about.
Kids are easily distracted. Leverage it. Yes, kids need to learn to mind you, but there is more than one way to accomplish that goal.
Creating a Diversion for the Picky Eater
Here’s an example particular to a “picky eater,” who may be less picky than just wanting a certain response from an adult.
My daughter, Erika, is babysitting two kiddos, age five and six, this week. When she got home today, she reported that she had “pulled an Anna” (that’s me).
At lunch, she warmed up a dish of enchiladas. Before anybody even began eating, the younger boy wanted to make conversation and distinguish himself with her. He told Erika that he and his dad, who is from Brazil, both like enchiladas hot and spicy, like these were going to be.
“I don’t like them spicy! I can’t eat those!” responded the girl, who wanted to be part of the conversation and differentiate herself, too. So Erika acknowledged her feelings by saying, “Oh, I see. You don’t like things to be too hot?”
Erika neither told her that she had to eat the enchiladas (which were not actually very spicy) nor asked what she wanted to eat instead. Instead, Erika changed the subject, creating a diversion. “So have you been to Brazil?” she asked them, giving them each chances to tell her about it and get attention from her.
The little girl, once heard and acknowledged, but not pressured to eat, went ahead and ate her enchiladas while they talked about their visits to Brazil.
Erika and I both credit the must-read book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber & Mazlish) with the ability to pull off such a feat.
Take a Detour
This technique is also described in the book How to Get People to Do Things (1979). Author Robert Conklin calls it “taking a detour.” It’s a simple, effective, low-key way to keep a situation from going in the wrong direction with a child (or an adult).
“If there is resistance to the road you’re traveling, leave it, take a detour, and then wander back to the original path,” Conklin explains. “Replace the individual’s thoughts with a change of conversation, then come back to your proposal.”
When feeding children, just having the food there in front of them is more than enough of a proposal. No need to ask them to eat anything, which tends to raise resistance. So if Junior rejects his beets, ask him if he had a good time at recess today. Distract him from resistance. Later, he might eat them.
Conklin calls this technique “casual thought replacement.” It’s part technique, part attitude. Friendly, relaxed, cheerfulness is the key. Nonchalant, matter-of-fact in-chargedness is an attitude that will take you far in dealing with children. Becoming frazzled, angry and impatient are less effective and can lead to further resistance and resentment.
Old-Fashioned Magical Mind Control for Kids and Parents
Creating a diversion is a parenting technique that was also recommended some 100 years ago by a British educational reformer, Charlotte Mason.
This way of “changing children’s thoughts,” as Mason calls it, lets a child save face without a parent giving in. It avoids unnecessary battles, anger on either side, and punishments.
“Where [the parent] cannot yield, she diverts, she does not crush with a sledgehammer,” writes Mason.
A new idea diffuses the battle while giving parents something to do with themselves, instead of giving in to the temptation to be pushy and controlling, stances that are counterproductive at the table. Especially since eating is not a question of wrong- or right-doing and obedience or a question of safety, getting in the trenches over what a child puts in her mouth is the last thing you want, or need to do.
We can also change a child’s mind with inspiring ideas through a story or an example, as Mason recommends. Giving a child a new way of thinking and a compelling reason of her own to change her ways is bound to be more effective than just threatening punishment, especially for those kids who really like to call the shots.
“It is a happy thing that the ‘difficult’ children who are the readiest to resist a direct command are often the quickest to respond to the stimulus of an idea,” Mason states.
So next time your child challenges you to a battle over eating, maybe acknowledge her feelings, then try giving her something better to think about, and see what happens:
- “OK. I guess you’re not hungry. Did your teacher announce who gets to play the star role in the show?”
- “I know you were busy with your dolls, but it’s time for us all to come to the table together. Did you hear what happened to your sister today at school?”
The Happy Medium: How to Gently Mean What You Say
Dr. Spock, in speaking of “How to Manage One-Year-Olds” in Dr. Spock on Parenting (1988), recommends telling a one-year-old “no” in combination with “brisk removal” of the object or the child. In classically perfect Dr. Spock parenting advice, he goes on to advocate saying “no” whenever it’s called for, but not to get angry, because the child will be better able to “accept” the lesson. Isn’t that the truth for any size human?
Noting that physical punishment is neither needed nor really effective, Spock explains that “prompt, firm removal is the most convincing method. After a while the child learns that you mean what you say, and then ‘No, no’ becomes a sufficient reminder. . . . Distraction is the most effective way of getting your one-year-old’s mind off a forbidden object or forbidden action. Have a few objects on hand such as a ring of keys, a piece of chain, a bell.”
I suppose this kind of statement is behind the old accusations of “permissiveness” made against Dr. Spock. He is a little sneaky for some people. His methods fall right in the happy medium between the extremes letting children do whatever they want (insufficient firmness), and harsh punishment (excessive firmness).
Understanding the Busy Baby
As another example: one day, I was waiting in a car repair waiting room once with a young couple and their 18-month-old. My judgmental self told me that the parents must have known they’d be sitting around waiting with the baby, but they had not brought a thing to entertain him while they waited. He began to toddle around and touch the magazines and fake plants, and climb on things. I guess he was supposed to sit in a chair with his hands folded and stare off into space or watch the morning talk shows on TV there. The mom just sat in her chair and scolded him harshly and disgustedly anytime he did anything, while the dad gazed off into space.
I think I said something to them like, “They should have a playground in here,” to show my understanding of their problem and as a thickly veiled hint. Someday soon, when I get a little older and more grizzled, I probably will start lecturing people in public. I wanted to say, “Hey Mom, hey Dad, why didn’t you bring him a few little toys or a book to read to him? At least pull some little doodad out of your purse and show it to him. Show him your driver’s license! Or why don’t you walk him around and show him the cars. Talk to him so he’s not bored? Play with him; he’s a baby.” I think I may even have dug in my own purse and tried to find something to interest him.
All the parents could think of to help the little guy pass the time and make their lives easier was to buy him a candy bar out of the vending machines.
If there’s something almost as misguided as expecting a baby to behave like a grown up and getting all hateful and shaming them when they don’t, it’s feeding babies candy bars. Both are breakdowns in parenting and disservices to children. My judgmental self was at its worst.
If it was snack time, and I don’t think it was, they should have foreseen that and brought a proper snack and fed it to him. Who knows what stress they were under. We all have our failures. Still, they could at least be nice to the kid and try to understand his needs.
Babies need stuff to keep them busy. It’s up to us parents to decide how they’ll keep busy. Many a battle on the changing table could be averted by giving the baby something interesting to hold while he lies there.
Dr. Spock tells the story of how when he had a one-year-old, he set out to see how long he could occupy and interest the little guy with just a pair of cufflinks. Twenty minutes later, Dr. Spock was the only one who was tired of the experiment. Kids just like messing with stuff.
Spare the Rod: A Few Words on Why
Punishment Isn’t Your Best Option
I recently heard a lovely, revolutionary (for me) explanation of the old maxim “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
The original verse, Proverbs 13:24, from the Old Testament, says in the old King James version: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him early.”
These lines have been used to justify inflicting painful physical punishments on children ever since, I suppose.
But the other day, I heard a speaker point out that “the rod” is one of those shepherding terms, as in “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. . . .Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The rod comforts me?
The speaker noted that shepherds don’t beat sheep with their rods; if they did, the sheep would run away every time they saw the shepherd with that rod. Instead, the rod is used to guide and protect. It keeps sheep on the right path. It may be used to beat off wolves, but not the sheep. A rod comforts the sheep, I suppose in the same way kids are secure in knowing their limits and knowing that someone is keeping them in line for their own good.
As Charlotte Mason tell us:
- “The need for punishment is mostly preventable.”
- “It is not easy to find a punishment that does not defeat its own ends.”
- “Exceedingly little actual punishment is necessary where children are brought up with care.”