Recently a man opened up to me. “My 5-year old daughter is preoccupied with my iPhone. She’s constantly nagging me to watch it or play with it. She’ll reach into my pocket and just pilfer it and if I say ‘No’ she has a fit”.
I felt for this man. There was an unmistakable air of desperation in his words.
Children are relentless. They understand that when it comes to getting what they want, that after enough “No’s” they’ll eventually get to “Yes”. And while the technique I’m about to share with you is very effective for getting them to focus on a more worthwhile use of their time, it’s not nearly as effective at getting them to put down the “device” once they’ve started. Electronic entertainment, like so many things our impulses tell us take in, is like toothpaste: once it’s out of the tube it’s very, very difficult to get it back in. Remember that the next time your kid demands to watch Frozen for the thousandth time.
Let’s get to it, then. When I was a kid I was heavily into magic. When learning the secret to a new trick, I would often grow incredulous at its simplicity: “How can this possibly fool anybody?” I’d say. (This is the source of magicians’ self-loathing when around jugglers, but that’s another story). But I learned to take that leap of faith and perform the trick as instructed and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work as advertised.
One of the first thing you learn as a magician is the ability to direct – or misdirect – people’s attention. Get them to focus on something you want to focus on and away from that which you want them to ignore. I have relied on this technique of misdirection throughout my career as a parent – and to great effect. For example, when my 3-year old daughter is whining that she can’t watch the iPad, I muse aloud “I wonder what’s taller, a giraffe or an elephant?” and instantly she is engaged with the question instead of the next episode of Little Einsteins.
Is it really that easy? Of course not. Not always, anyway. Often a follow-up question is required: Which is the one with the long neck again, the giraffe or the elephant? Children are always intrigued by evidence that they are smarter than the grown-ups around them: it confirms their suspicions. Use this knowledge! (Note also the binary nature of the questions: the answers are either this or that. Keep it simple! It’s one of the keys to engagement).
Naturally this example won’t suffice for all kids in all situations. (If it did you wouldn’t be learning it from me – it would be common knowledge!) The point is that, just as fantastic magic tricks can be disappointingly simple to perform successfully, so to is redirecting your kids’ attention. You don’t have to be clever, you have to be engaging.
I can hear you say “But Dave, I don’t have time to be having a Socratic dialogue with my kids all day. I need to get work done”. Fair enough. But before you suture a wound you must first stop the bleeding and that requires misdirection or, in common parlance, changing the subject.
Try this: place two chairs a few feet apart, throw a blanket over them and say “That’s my cave” then walk away. Too many parents make a great show of observing their children to see how they react. In my experience, children become self-conscious when it’s obvious you want to see how they respond. Instead, do what I do: go back into the kitchen and if necessary, talk to the kid through the wall.
Finally, remember that there’s an endless supply of things that fascinate children: utilize this knowledge. Clap your hands and ask if it’s loud or quiet. Then snap your fingers and ask the same question.
Then do what I do with my 3-year old daughter: send the kid off to make you a cup of coffee. How will she do that? Let her figure it out while you get some work done.