I’ve experienced many situations over the years requiring parental resourcefulness while raising my daughter. But I learned important lessons about teaching and motivating a child long before she was born. While working as a summer lifeguard and Big Brother volunteer, I discovered that distraction can help children overcome paralyzing fear, step outside their comfort zone…and even develop a passion for doing something they used to dread.
Distraction Technique #1: Use Humor to Overcome Fear
One of my duties as a lifeguard was to give swimming lessons to children of all ages. Most of my fellow guards disliked teaching the younger ones because it was hard to maintain order with them. Sometimes they splashed so much you could hardly see how many kids were in your class.
Among the six preschoolers I met in my first class was a boy I’ll call Timmy. He was very quiet and so fearful of the water that he wouldn’t dip a toe in. Timmy would back away from the pool in choreographed unison with my approach to him. More than once he retreated all the way to his mother, who managed to coax him to rejoin the class. As the other kids playfully jumped into the water and hung on the side of the pool to practice kicking during the first two lessons, Timmy remained steadfastly dry.
As the kids were assembling for Lesson 3, I had an idea. I walked backward toward the water from the concrete apron while asking the kids in my silliest voice, “Does anyone know where the pool went? I can’t find it anywhere!” Everybody except Timmy erupted in laughter, but I saw a hint of a smile on his face. “It’s right behind you!” the other kids squealed in delight as I pretended not to understand them. “Can you help me find the pool, Timmy?” I asked. “I can’t figure out where it went.” He chuckled and stepped over to the water’s edge, pointing at the water behind me. “Huh? I don’t see any…” and I proceeded to ker-plop into the water, jumping up as if on a trampoline and yelling, “Hey…where did this water come from?”
From there I continued my high jinks at fever pitch, talking a blue streak while demonstrating everything the kids needed to know. Timmy got caught up in the lighthearted mood, and before long he was able to practice kicking, moving his arms through the water, and finally going completely below the surface. By the end of the two weeks of lessons, he was swimming eagerly with his face in the water. (On the last day, he handed me a little plastic gold trophy that read “World’s Greatest Teacher.”)
Distraction Technique #2: Shift the Focus to You
After graduating from college, I became a Big Brother volunteer and started spending time with a 6-year-old boy I’ll call Joshua. His parents had been divorced recently, and he had a history of emotional problems. The volunteer coordinator told me that at one time, Joshua “thought he was a machine.” Some children use this strategy to protect themselves from painful feelings (machines can’t feel), but he no longer thought this way when I met him.
Once a week, Joshua and I would get together and play board games, shoot baskets, or throw a Frisbee around. After I had been seeing him for about two years, he told me he’d like to play Little League baseball that spring. We practiced diligently for weeks, but as we approached the field on the day to sign up, he hesitated. He told me he didn’t want to play, that baseball was stupid. As he turned for home, I told him that was fine but I was going to stay at the field and watch the tryouts. He seemed stunned. I made no attempt to talk him out of leaving, figuring that would open the door for him to argue his case. Whether to play or not had to be up to him.
He walked in fits and starts toward the street, some hundred yards away, turning often to look back. I peeked at him out of the corner of my eye as I leaned against the fence and watched the players. At the curb, he stopped and stared at me and took a step back toward the ball field—then two, then three. Before long Joshua was standing in a line of kids by home plate, telling a coach his name. He was placed on a team, made some new friends, and had a great time playing that year.
Bonus: Distraction Also Triggers Curiosity
What I discovered in the pool and on the ball field is backed up by findings in child psychology and neuroscience. “Distract, redirect, and supervise” is a core strategy for replacing bad behavior with good, but it can also be just the ticket for the types of situations I experienced with Timmy and Joshua. According to Margot Sunderland, a noted child psychotherapist and author of the award-winning The Science of Parenting: How Today’s Brain Research Can Help You Raise Happy, Emotionally Balanced Children, distraction can make a child feel curious about something in a positive way—even something that initially causes stress. This shift can be measured by changes in brain chemistry. As Dr. Sunderland says, “[Distraction] can naturally override the brain’s rage or distress systems. It also triggers a high level of dopamine, a great positive arousal chemical in the brain, which reduces stress and triggers interest and motivation.”
Renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget recognized the value of distraction nearly a century ago while conducting groundbreaking research on child development. Since very young children can’t understand cause and effect, Piaget pointed out, it’s useless to lecture or argue with them. Although Piaget was referring to toddlers, it certainly would have served no purpose to explain to Timmy that the water couldn’t hurt him; that kind of logic was still unavailable to his developing brain. However, a bunch of people splashing around and laughing was something he could understand.
What I did with both Timmy and Joshua was help them let go of their fear for a moment so they could see for themselves—without hearing a grownup lecture about it—that taking a step outside their comfort zone might be a good move. And that’s a valuable lesson for all age groups.
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