by Jon Atack
Give Children Power of Choice
Knowing how to talk to children about predators and manipulation is vital to giving them the tools in life to spot manipulation, coercion and undue influence.
It is vital to talk to children at the level of their understanding. Too many adults presume that children share their vocabulary and their ideas; it often isn’t so.
Young children need simple lessons. Ira Chaleff’s “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice” is an excellent beginning. Adolescents are more likely to pay attention to the culture of their peers – Rick and Morty is far more appealing to them than Shakespeare.
Children need to be heard. Recent abuse scandals have highlighted the failure of adults to believe what they are being told. The first lesson is to listen, and the second is to ask questions to make sure that you understand what the child’s understanding is. Friendly questioning also helps the child to remember the points being made.
We all respond best to stories – narratives that explain the world in simple terms: religious parables and fairy tales are easy to understand and often vividly described – they stick in the mind.
It is often best to explain to a child through a story from your own experience – especially if you can admit to a mistake, because that not only creates interest and empathy, it also allows the child to see that admitting to mistakes is a positive – even an admirable – trait.
If you feel irritated or angry, don’t try to persuade or educate a child. We take in information better when we are not on the defensive, when we feel comfortable and, best of all, when we are fascinated. A boring or emotionally charged environment is no good for learning!
Be patient, be interesting and be concerned about the child’s welfare. It may well be frustrating – especially if they want to run off with a potentially dangerous group.
If that is the case, it is important to allow them to tell you about the group, rather than trying to use rational argument (or sneering criticism of the group, which should be avoided at all costs!). Our commitments are emotional, whether we are adults or children. If a child feels certain that a probably dangerous group offers salvation to all of humanity, they will defend their belief in the same way that a parent will defend a child: we adopt our beliefs, and treasure them, often irrationally. It is the passion of commitment that has to be quieted, not the reasons they may have for holding that commitment.
Active listening is a counseling approach that is very useful in communicating. To diffuse potentially emotional situations, it is sensible to listen to the end of a person’s thought – which can be an agreed two or five minute period – before responding. Even when you know their evidence is wrong, it is best to let them offer it all. If necessary, take notes, so that you can return to anything that has been said.
There are particular open-ended questions that are useful for anyone with a fixed way of thinking. Ask what attracted the child to the belief system, what they expect to gain personally, what they feel they have gained, what they have seen gained by others. People too often think they will win someone over by destroying their belief with evidence. But this is not a contest: people should only change their beliefs when they are persuaded, rather than when they are bullied, cajoled or tricked. And the only person who can really persuade me is me. There is a difference between, “You’re right” and “I agree”: the first is sometimes simply code for “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
The purpose of conversation is to bring someone to express themselves sufficiently to begin to ask questions and offer negative comments about the group or belief. This only happens in a friendly, uncritical environment, where their right to have an opinion is respected.
Where children have already been involved in a high-control group, it is best to seek expert information. Janja Lalich’s latest book, Escaping Utopia, is a good source on second-generation members. Steve Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control remains the most accessible general text.
More difficulties are resolved through patient listening than forceful argument. Once you have listened patiently, the child should be willing to consider your evidence. Be sure that the evidence is well-researched and not simply an attack – and support children in their right to make decisions for themselves!