“Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another person’s reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.” – Dr.Robin Stern
R picks up a pair of scissors and starts by cutting a piece of paper that was made available to him. He makes a few snips then moves on to a piece of paper he sees on the floor. He then sits on the floor. Once down there, he notices a pair of shoes on their own and picks it up. He tries to cut the shoe laces.
“R, I see you’re interested in cutting. I can’t let you cut those shoe laces, they belong to M. If you want to cut you can cut paper.”
R ignores me and again tries to cut the shoe lace.
“You really want to cut the shoe lace, I am going to help you by taking the shoe away.”
R starts to cry.
“You’re sad that I took the shoe away. If you want to cut, you can cut some paper or I can get you some string to cut. R, which would you like, the paper or some string?”
R pauses and ponders my words, and as always, lets out a quiet answer as if he isn’t really sure what he is saying. “String?”
“You want to cut string! I can get you some string to cut, I am so happy I was able to help you!”
This is a type of interaction I was surrounded with when I began to work in a school that identified as inspired by the RIE approach. According to Rie.org, the approach is intended to “…honor infants and young children as equal members in relationships…dedicated to creating a culture of people who are authentic, resourceful and respectful. ”
I have learned so many things from RIE educators, from Janet Lansbury’s thoughtful reflectings and offering of advice to parents and educators: that children don’t need to be constantly entertained or distracted, that children are capable of feeling, holding onto, and working through emotions, and that even from the youngest of ages, bodily consent is vital.
Still, there are aspects of what I have picked up on over the last few years, things I have done myself, that sometimes don’t feel…quite right. The offering of choices is one of them.
Setting Limits With Toddlers by Janet Lansbury outlines a scenario where they would use choices to solve a conflict with a toddler. The parent and toddler arrive at a birthday party, only for the toddler to panic at the front door and no longer wish to go in. Lansbury offers a series of possible approaches, settling on the best one as, “Give him the choice of going in now or in three minutes (or perhaps the choice of walking or being carried) and then follow through with c. (Let him know it’s time to go in, carry him inside and face his possibly explosive negative reaction.)”
This is something I have done hundreds of times. With success. It works, most of the time. But I can’t get past the perplexed face of R, or most children when I give them their choices. I decided to think deeper about this, and why it doesn’t feel quite so right.
When the choices are offered, we are encouraged to give them in a neutral manner. “When we project calm, our children usually release their upset feelings quickly and feel free to move on.”
We are, in these moments, essentially saying, “You shouldn’t be upset, I am giving you choices. See, you have TWO choices, and you get to choose the one you want! See how calm I am? You should be calm, there is nothing to be upset about here!.”
Then, when they “have trouble” going along with the choice “of their choosing” you move on quietly, without a word, as if that is also normal. As if to say, “Well, I gave you a choice, you should’ve just stuck to it.”
How is this not gaslighting? Is this not attempting to morph the reality of another? “You don’t want to cut the shoe laces, you want to cut paper or string. You can’t be upset about the shoe laces because you made a choice and said paper. Now be happy you had a choice!”
I think about how I would feel if offered the same.
I imagine I go to eat a peach. My roommate A walks in and says, “You can’t eat that peach, I was going to eat that peach. You can eat the banana or an apple though, which would you like?”
I am angry just at the imagining of that scene. I don’t want a banana or an apple, I want a peach. Telling me I can have a banana or an apple doesn’t negate the fact that I wanted a peach.
Imagine a more serious scenario. I want to go out with some friends and my partner says, “I don’t really like when you go out with them, I think you should either go out with me or we can stay home and watch that movie you’ve been wanting to see. What do you think?”
What is the difference? Of course, there is some different. One, we are attempting to mold what is okay and not okay for those who don’t necessarily always know better. Cutting the shoe laces of someone else is not okay. We can say it isn’t okay, without attempting to distract the child from their upset by offering “choices” which aren’t really choices at all, they are demands. We are demanding them, “Do this or do that.”
This isn’t to say choices can’t be helpful for children. I think children can benefit from hearing what alternatives are. I wonder though if we can make it less controlling if we can do so in a way that doesn’t reflect a form of gaslighting.
Something I have started to do is ask if they would like to hear alternatives. “You want to cut shoelaces, but we don’t have shoelaces you can cut.” Pausing, to see their reaction. Then, if they are upset asking, “Would it be helpful to hear other things you could cut?” Perhaps they will say yes or otherwise display a desire to hear their options. Perhaps they say nothing, but rather continue to display their upsetness.
Rather than distracting them from their upset, or attempting to minimize their valid emotions by demanding they make a choice, can we just be with them as they work through their feelings?
“You’re feeling _. I will be right here if you need me.”
“Children’s emotions are as real as yours. Just because they might get sad over the colour of their cup, does not make their feelings any less real.” Rebekah Lipp