Six Ways to Teach Children without Gas Lighting

Six Ways to Teach Children without Gas Lighting May 10, 2017


Image: Unsplash

Gas lighting is a term to describe psychological manipulation inflicted on a victim to make them question their perception of reality. The term stems from a 1938 stage play, Gas Light, in which a husband dims the lights in the house, and when the wife accurately points out the fact, he convinces her she is delusional.

Gas lighting is emotional abuse and occurs in an attempt to control others. As with other forms of abuse, victims typically are in a position of vulnerability, accessing less social, political, personal power than their perpetrator.

This is why, although most well-meaning parents don’t set out to emotionally abuse their children, we should still be aware of gas lighting by nature of our inherent power over our children. The difference can be subtle, as our parenting responsibility is to influence our children, to discern whether we are teaching, or altering their perception of reality.

The good news is, if you are reading this article–you are aware of gas lighting enough that you are concerned over whether you’re inflicting it upon your children–chances are you are not gas lighting them. But because of our children’s inherent vulnerabilities, we can never be too cautious as powerful adults in their lives, to ensure we steer clear of abusive tendencies.

Here are six ways to teach children without gas lighting:

“What do you think?” Use this phrase with enthusiasm and often. Get very curious about your children’s ideas and affirm and celebrate them. Whenever you introduce a concept or an idea, solicit their creative response by asking, “what do you think?” and yes, you can do this even with a toddler. It is never too early to reinforce that your child has a strong intuition of their own and help them know their thoughts are important and true.

Strengthen their ability to investigate the world. When our children are equipped with tools to explore the world, they will not be easily gas lit as they will interrogate what they’re learning against what they’re experiencing. This is why an effective strategy of an emotional abuser is to cut their victims off from the outside world. As long as the victim stays sheltered and afraid, one can easily manipulate their reality—ignorance breeds deception. I am reminded of the evil mother in the Disney feature film, Tangled, who kept Rapunzel cloistered in her tower and told her she was crazy to think she can survive in the world. The first step to gas lighting is to instill fear of the outside. Of course, we have a responsibility to shelter our children to a certain extent, but as they grow, we must unfold the world to them and as Laura Wrigley from Raising Children Unfundamentalist says, “strengthen their ability to investigate the world.”

Be careful what you teach. Magda Gerber famously said, “Be careful what you teach, it might interfere with what they are learning.” Remember that we are but one out of multiple influences in our children’s lives. They are incredible sponges that soak in learning from external sights and sounds, as well as internal development of heart and mind. A child’s brain is creating synapses and making connections at a faster rate than adults. Be aware we are but one aspect of their growth, and to place ourselves in active engagement with other spheres of influence. We can’t gaslight our kids if they are interrogating us against their other “teachers.”

Compel, and do not coerce. It is fair and reasonable to pass on values that are important to you as a parent and for your family. In fact, it provides grounding for a child’s identity and formation. But it’s important that we call our children into shared values by compelling and not coercing them. Much of this will happen organically by living out those values in our everyday family lives. You want your child to be a generous person? Live generously and entice them to that standard by showing them the good fruit of that example. We should never demand or shame our kids for not living up to the values we espouse. Instead, we cultivate their character with gentle instruction and by modeling it.

Model autonomy. Parenting without authoritative control does not mean we do not get to express our own opinions. For mothers, especially, it’s important to show our girls how to maintain autonomy and have a voice in a world that often silences girls. But here’s how to exert our power without lording over the children’s. Use “I think…” statements. Just as we give our children permission to explore what they think, we model it by expressing our ideas. Explain your convictions but tell them why. Kids love stories, and they especially love stories of our past. Tell them the narratives that shape who we are so they know our personhood doesn’t come out of a vacuum, but is formed by our own history and other influences. In this way, we don’t need to be timid about sharing our strong beliefs but those ideas are framed as our unique story and path, ensuring that we make space for our kids to walk their own.

Subvert power imbalance. The danger to gas lighting our children lie in the power imbalance, so whenever possible, subvert that hierarchy. This means getting down to eye level with the kids to reduce the intimidation of our larger stature. Or speaking softly and not talking down at the children. It’s listening lots and giving them control whenever possible. All of these power-equalizing strategies will minimize the risk of gas lighting and ensure we are parenting healthy children with a strong sense of their own truth.

And truth will set them free to live a daring life of adventure. We can only hope they call us to tell us all about it.

Get a free download of a Christian parenting manifesto that helps us guide children into healthy spirituality + the most helpful parenting resources with progressive values.

Browse Our Archives