“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.” 1
— Charlotte Mason
One day, I noticed a dad hanging around with his toddler on a sidewalk. The little tot, about 18 months old, had her face set like flint 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 fiercely outraged look on her face. Maybe she was too young to understand why she couldn’t go there, though she probably was not. 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, James, you can’t get into the cat’s food!” She would pull him away repeatedly and say, “No, James!” and he would go for it again. They stayed there by the cat dish, battling it out, his will against hers.
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, a redirection, a gentle change of thinking from what he was trying to do. He needed an action from Mom that showed she was serious.
The girl needed Dad to pick her up, talk to her, maybe show her something interesting in another direction. Engage her, give her some attention, understand her, entertain her, treat her like a person. An explanation probably wouldn’t have hurt, but wasn’t essential.
The same applies to James’ 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. Give him something more compelling to think about. Surely the cat itself would be more interesting than the cat food. Bring up a subject he likes to talk about. Then the problem dissolves, the battle’s over, and everybody’s happy.
Little ones are easily distracted. Leverage it. Yes, kids need to learn to mind you, but there is more than one way to accomplish that goal. Going head-to-head isn’t always necessary. A change in thinking changes behavior.
The distracted child
Dr. Benjamin 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 advocates saying no whenever it’s called for, but without anger. The child will be better able to “accept” the lesson when it’s given calmly and gently.2 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.”
Combining a clear “no” with physical separation makes it clear to a child that she can’t have what she wants. Giving her something else to think about helps make that denial a painless pill to swallow.
“Distraction is the most effective way of getting your one-year-old’s mind off a forbidden object or forbidden action,” Dr. Spock advises. Many a dangerously boring situation has been saved by a few everyday objects to occupy a little one.
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.
In the same way, if your high schooler is asking to take the car on a long weekend with friends and your inner alarm is screaming against it, you can say no and explain your objections clearly and briefly. If your teen wants to keep arguing, express your empathy for his disappointment, then just cut it off and change the subject. Make it clear you mean what you say.
“Exceedingly little actual punishment is necessary where children are brought up with care,” Miss Mason writes. “The need for punishment is mostly preventable.”3
If you have to take your child to wait with you in some office, go prepared. Bring a few books and toys to keep him entertained and head off misbehavior at the pass. Don’t get angry with your child for clambering around the waiting room when you’ve set him up to misbehave. Don’t expect your baby to behave like a grownup and watch talk shows and read magazines in the waiting room and then get all hateful and shaming if he doesn’t.
Walk him around and show him whatever there is to see. Talk to him so he’s not bored. Play with him; he’s a baby. Come prepared with a snack if it’s snack time. Don’t end up buying your baby a candy bar out of the vending machines because he’s bored and hungry in the waiting room.
Little peeps just like messing with stuff. It’s not a weakness to be despised. Play is how they learn. Youngsters, from infancy through teenage, need to be kept busy. They will be busy, for better or worse. It’s up to us parents to decide how they’ll keep busy, for their benefit or their detriment.
Many a battle on the changing table and smacking of baby thighs could be averted by giving the baby something interesting to hold while he lies there. Instead of trying to habituate our children to boredom, why not give them something their busy little minds and fingers can work on?
Creating such a diversion is a parenting technique Miss Mason recommended some 100 years ago. Far beyond age one, children respond as readily to thoughts that capture their fancy as a baby who latches onto an interesting object.
This way of “changing children’s thoughts,” as Miss 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,”4 writes Miss Mason. Helping children make constructive changes is always a matter of changing their thoughts, changing their minds, not just coercing them to do what you want.
Whether it’s the thinking of the moment or the habits of thinking that need to be changed, a compelling idea will move a child in the right direction. Whatever the age of your child, when you make up your mind to keep your wandering lamb in the pasture, your motivation and knowledge of your own child will lead you to the way to reach that aim.
1 School Education 23
3 Home Education 148
4 School Education 23
Anna Migeon is the author of The Happy Dinner Table: The Path to Healthy, Harmonious Family Meals (2016), available on Amazon, of which this article is an excerpt. Anna’s children were born in France, where she was inspired by the strong food traditions, delicious dishes and healthy attitudes toward eating. Her children also attended Charlotte Mason schools, where Anna learned more about raising kids who love what’s good for them. She has conducted workshops and coached parents and about how to get picky kids to eat better according to Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Anna is also an award-winning cook (her chocolate truffles won a red ribbon at the Gillespie County Fair in 2005, even though they melted into one blob in the Texas heat). She and her French husband, Gérard, share an empty nest in San Antonio.