I’ll tell you a story.
This story happened right around an hour ago. And I thought it was a good illustration of one of the principles I routinely teach about parenting, namely, distraction. With young children, distraction is usually the first choice for intervention techniques in high-stress moments. To wit:
My wife just came out of the kids’ bedroom at 8:15, with the kids still not asleep well past their bedtime. She was exhausted and feeling somewhat ill. She looked at me with exasperation and said, “Our three-year-old is on the verge of another tantrum [she had put on a good 45-minute one earlier in the evening]. She wants juice. If we don’t give her juice, she’s going to have a major tantrum.” This was one of those times where it was sorely tempting to give in to our preschooler’s blackmail. My wife needed to go to sleep; I had a client to see in 15 minutes. A tantrum really did not fit into the schedule. “I’ll handle it,” I said confidently, not having a clue how exactly I was going to do so.
I strode into the room and sat down in the rocking chair by the bunk bed, the bottom bunk of which was occupied by a whimpering three-year-old girl sucking her thumb. In the seconds it took me to walk from my room to theirs, I was struck with inspiration. “Sweetheart,” I began, “Mommy tells me you want a moose.” No reaction. “I can’t give you a moose. I don’t have a moose. A moose is a big animal. If you want a moose, we’ll have to go to the zoo, or Canada or something.” She turned her eyeballs ever so slightly in my direction. “So I can’t get you a moose, okay?” She’s definitely looking at me by now. “Do you know what a moose looks like? It’s a big animal, about as big as a cow, except it has antlers-” “like a deer!” piped in the elder child from the above bunk. And then – the whimperer spoke: “A moose is a big animal?” “Yes,” I responded, “that’s why I can’t get you a moose. Sorry. But you know what? I have a story about a moose. Here, let me tuck you in with your blankie just liiiiike this. You see, once I was at camp in a state called Maine, which is at the very top of the United States…” And thus did I transition into another important parenting tool: the Story from Your Childhood. More on this another time.
The point is, the distraction technique worked as well as I could possibly have expected. It allowed me to deftly sidestep a major power struggle, which really ends with everybody losing, no matter who wins. I had been rather apprehensive, because I really wasn’t expecting such a successful outcome, and I hadn’t yet figured out what I was going to do if she protested, “Not moose, juice!” which is really what I had anticipated. I was ready to go on with “You want a goose?” followed by “You want a caboose?” but I was pretty confident that that was going to lead to a breakdown somewhere in between goose and caboose.
But the truth is, you really can’t predict kids, can you?
Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, lives in Baltimore with his three exuberant children and his loving but tired wife. He is the director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, where he enjoys working with couples, parents, families and children.
This article was originally published on the Baltimore Therapy Center blog.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.