“That’s me!” Her blue eyes sparkled as she smiled, and she pointed to the holy card pinched between her chubby fingers. I’d handed it to her out of desperation, hoping the pretty illustration would distract her from wriggling out of a diaper change. And it worked. We started talking, and I explained to my two-year-old daughter that the saint on the card was her namesake.
“Her name is Cecilia, just like your middle name. She’s just like you!” And so a desperate attempt at distraction became a lasting lesson. Now, every time I change her diaper, my daughter asks to see the picture of the saint who is “just like her” and hear more about St. Cecilia’s story.
Distracting a young child from undesirable behavior rather than punishing her for it sometimes feels like manipulation, deception, or even the easy way out. But a very young child is incapable of effectively connecting a certain behavior with negative consequences. My two-year-old doesn’t stop to think things through before she does something. If I scatter all of the pieces around on that board game they’re playing, I might get into trouble. She lives for the moment. She finds joy in emptying an entire box of tissues, smearing Ranch dressing all over her body at dinner time, and watching Candyland pieces fly through the air. These things are fun. They bring instant gratification to a two-year-old. But I can show her that there is even greater joy to be had beyond the Ranch and the tissues.
When I show her how to dip her carrot sticks in her little bowl of salad dressing, she discovers the delicious, creamy goodness. When I help her clean up the tissues that were her ticker tape parade, she is proud and empowered by her accomplishment and self-discipline.
And so these parenting efforts aren’t about avoiding temper tantrums, creative punishments, or “tough love”. They are about showing our children what real love feels like. It points them to a greater good, to that which helps them become who they are. These lessons in distraction, taught during the tender years of childhood, will nurture a lasting instinct to direct themselves toward the greater good. Not toward the easiest way, the most convenient way, or the most painless way–but the way that conjures the memory of their mother’s pride as they helped pick up the tissues. Or a father’s joy as they gleefully dipped everything in Ranch dressing. Or the real love of a family manifested in the friendly competition of a board game. A punishment lasts but a moment, but persevering in the art of distraction prepares our children for a lifetime of redirecting their bodies and souls toward that which is Good, Right, and True.