It’s Not ‘Distraction.’ It’s Gaslighting. And, Yes, Stop.

I’ve long been confused that people so often condemn the positive parenting tool of distraction. “Distracting” a child can play a healthy role in parenting. I write about it here: Distraction is Not Distraction. It applies in a specific context. If you want to get the child to do something they don’t want to do or are afraid to do, you can distract them. If your child had to have a scary medical procedure, you would probably distract them with a pleasant song or story. If you have to get a shirt on a toddler who is unwilling, you would probably distract them with a silly song or maybe by playfully throwing a sock at them. Every single caregiver does these things at times. These things are much better than getting annoyed, pleading, begging, or punishing a child. You are right there, in the throes of things, offering your comforting presence to a child, to keep things moving along. These are are highly normal and effective ways to get children into diapers, into the bath, through dentist appointments, etc.

When people are opposed to “distraction” in an unhealthy way, it’s usually because the child’s needs are being purposely ignored, if not purposely manipulated. This isn’t “distraction.” This is gaslighting. And, yes, stop.

Gaslighting is a known abuse tactic. Anyone who lives in the world of survivors of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is probably familiar with it. It’s when an abuser makes a victim doubt their reality. The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight in which a devious husband tries to convince his wife that she is going crazy by doing things like making gas lights flicker and then telling her she is crazy for thinking she saw them. Have you ever lost your keys or wallet and could have sworn you put them in a particular spot? This is totally crazy making, isn’t it? Being made to doubt your own reality via your own mind is one of the worst cruelties a person can endure.

Let’s say a child knows they put their leftovers from last night’s dinner in the refrigerator. But, little do they know, a parent ate them. As the child goes to look for the leftovers, they can’t find them. They keep looking and looking for the leftovers, becoming more and more distraught. The offending parent, however, doesn’t fess up to eating the leftovers. Instead, they try to get the child to eat something else, watch their favorite show, or do anything except deal with the reality at hand. This isn’t “distraction.” This is gaslighting. A child will spin into mental craziness. They know the leftovers were put there yesterday, but no one will tell them what happened to the food. Their own memory and sanity are under question. To add insult, the parent yells at them for getting angry. A child’s intellect and emotions have now just been invalidated. There is little worse for any person than this double whammy.

If you are attempting to get the child through something difficult by singing a silly song, you’re distracting the child, but you are leaning into their need. It’s entirely healthy. If you are avoiding the child’s very need because you don’t want to respond to the child’s need or don’t want to fess up to your own bad behavior, you are gaslighting them. If the child is fully aware of all facts of a situation but just having difficulty and you try to avoid the pain of the reality, this is distraction. If any part of reality is being denied to the child, it is gaslighting. One stems from a highly attentive and loving caregiver. The other stems from a highly entitled jerk of a caregiver who doesn’t want to deal with the situation.

I watch gaslighting behavior more than I like. I watch caregivers say to their child something like “It’s time to get your rain coat on today! We called the sun and he didn’t want to come out so you need your rain coat!” A person should not be surprised when they use such a nonsensical argument that it goes nowhere with a child. It’s very invalidating of the child’s intellect.

I can’t think of any situation in which a child is fully aware of a situation but simply scared that some amount of emotional comfort isn’t warranted. You would easily do it for a friend. If a child is under extreme duress, it is not “teaching resilience” to let them languish without any “distraction” or other technique. The best parents are sensitive ones (blog to come, by the way). They actively monitor a child. If the child is under duress, a parent responds. That’s what sensitivity is. The child straight up needs emotional support, just like any adult would. We humans help each other in such times of uncertainty. It’s what we do. We need this. “Distraction” can play a role in this. I see no situation in which distracting someone from a known painful situation is a bad thing. I intuitively do it in many situations. When I had to have an MRI, in which I was in an enclosed space that feels like a coffin, I strongly reminded myself that I was not in fact in a coffin. I distracted myself mentally. I got so comfortable, I fell asleep. This is distinctly unlike what many other people tell me how their MRIs went, in which they were terrified the whole time. A few mental and emotional tools go a long way. Stop denying them to children. There is nothing wrong with distraction.

I know “gaslighting” is a strong word, and I intend it to be. I just wrote a book in which I propose that we start taking moral aim at abuse itself. Not at laziness. Not at selfishness. Not at evasion. Abuse. Gaslighting is abuse. As a culture, we are shy to call out abuse as such. We call men who fail their wives in some big way “knuckle heads.” When someone is the victim of abuse, we ask the victim to get louder and stronger in “setting their boundaries,” even though they have been, repeatedly. We almost never ask the abuser to stop being abusive. When I call out inter-personal behavior as abusive, people get all over me about using such a strong word. But, I propose, as a culture, we are terrible at standing up to actual abuse. Our moral paradigms don’t allow for it. This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics.

At the very least in reading this, I hope you are more aware of gaslighting behavior. And when you see it, yes. Please call it out.

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