Parents of young kids are uniquely suited to an age of alternative facts. We are presented with them all the time. Witness my interactions with my individuating three and a half year old this morning:
“You need to wash your hands before breakfast.”
“Because you pooped.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. I saw it in the potty.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Please wash your hands so you can have breakfast.”
“GO AWAY! GO AWAY! AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!”
“Your hands are dirty. You need to wash them.”
“They’re NOT dirty.”
“You still haven’t washed them from going potty. And now they have marker all over them from when you were coloring”
(Looking down at fingers with marks on them)
“No, they don’t. They’re clean.”
“You can see for yourself they’re not.”
“NO! GO AWAY!!! GO AAAAAA-WAYYYYYYY!”
So how can one counter such arguments?
No, really. Don’t try.
Write all the scintillating social media posts you want. Link to fact checkers. Or, in the case of your children, repeat the reality of the situation right back to their faces. They’re only going to run away screaming, “Noooooooooo!” Because these aren’t just alternative facts. These are alternative universes.
It’s like when Doc tries to tell Marty why there are suddenly two different 1985’s: the normal one and the hellish Hill Valley where Biff is rich and Marty’s dad is dead. No one in alt-universe 1985 has any idea the space time continuum has been disrupted.
“Somewhere in the past, the time line skewed into this tangent creating an alternate 1985. Alternate to you, me, and Einstein but reality to everyone else.”
The people in alt-1985 only know what they see in front of their faces. And neither Marty nor Doc nor Einstein can tell them any different.
This is why we all end up yelling at each other, I think. We try to tell those on the other side that their reality doesn’t exist. It’s not a good starting point.
You’ve experienced it if you’ve ever had to deal with a kid having a tantrum. This week, the big fight at our house has been at dinnertime. The kid wants to eat in front of the TV and we, the Evil Empire, are telling him we have to eat at the table which, every day this week, has prompted a meltdown that culminates in a refusal to eat dinner and a repudiation of every single one of our assertions about life, even things as innocuous as “I like your truck.” (“It’s not a truck! It’s a dump truck!!!”)
I get it. I really do. It can get pretty frustrating living in a world where the “elites” (aka parents) are always telling you how to act.
On some level, I think this is why a Trump surrogate could utter the phrase “alternative facts” with a straight face. The candidate’s message, for months, was directed at a certain segment of the population who felt like they were not being heard…and were probably justified in that feeling. Because when they tried to explain that their country was changing for the worse, they were often laughed at, dismissed, ignored, or trampled over.
Kids feel that way sometimes. They hear all these rules and get all these explanations thrown their way, most of which are not strong enough to override their emotions. ‘Candy isn’t a healthy dinner’ may be a fact, but the kid is not in any position to hear it. And so what you get in response is an alternative fact: “Yes, candy IS a healthy dinner.” And you’re suddenly in a rhetorical corner.
Alternative facts are to facts as reality TV is to reality: an approximation of what people want to believe–or have the capacity to believe–is true. The details of a narrative matter surprisingly little to people who feel like the narrator isn’t even reading from the right book. And that’s how kids often feel, I think. “Don’t you understand that I LOVE candy!!!! THAT is what this is about! Why are we even talking about this HEALTHY thing?”
You are not going to win the argument because it is not an argument about facts. It’s an argument about emotions. And the more emotion that is pent up, the less the facts matter and the more argumentative the kid (or the adult) seems to get.
After our back-and-forth over washing hands this morning, my son and I had a cooling off period and it seemed like things were better. But, with the memory of past grievances still fresh, I made the mistake of opening my mouth and saying something other than, ‘Yes, you’re right. You’re so smart.’
(showing me his toy bulldozer)
“Dad, come look at this. When I press this button, the lights turn on.”
“Oh, cool. And they blink, too.”
“No, they don’t blink!”
“See, they go on and off really quickly, over and over again. That’s called blinking.”
“No, it isn’t!”
“What is it called?”
“It’s called ‘NOT blinking!!!'”
Sometimes, our kids are in alt-1985 and there’s just no telling them otherwise. So what do we do?
Hell if I know, but here are a couple of thoughts:
Speak their language more. Focus on the feelings, and save the facts or the explanation for a calmer time. Try to figure out what matters to them and go from there.
When possible, don’t engage. If they’re being contrarian just because they’re not getting their way, change the subject or take some space.
When necessary, act. Sometimes shit needs to get done. Sometimes we need to put them in our figurative time machine and take them back to the future. For our sake, and theirs.
It’s a strange time and many of the us don’t know what to do. This is the best I can come up with.
The good news is: the age of alternative facts won’t last forever.