On the futility of yelling “GO TO SLEEP!” at a toddler.

What sleep training taught me about anti-vaxxers and the Big Lie.

My toddler, Emmalee, is full-court press personified. She oozes joy when she’s happy and weeps when she’s sad. She knows what she wants and the arsenal she wields to get it includes everything from flattery to negotiation to fits of rage.

Emmalee is afraid of the dark. Though we were fastidious about making sure she slept in her own crib as an infant (when co-sleeping poses a real suffocation risk), we relaxed a bit as she began to walk … into our bed in the middle of the night. This became a habit that sustained itself for about a year. And then two years. Now she considers it a protected right — and defends it with the vigor and savvy of a lawyer-activist-politician. 

As we came home from our vacation, Sarah and I resolved to get her to sleep in her own bed, in her own room … where it’s dark. Needless to say, we haven’t slept much for the past several nights. At 12:30 a.m. we begin to hear her rustling as she starts to scream, “Mama! Baba!” She bolts to our door, locked, which she pounds as her screams get more frantic. 

One of us (usually Sarah), goes to the door to usher her back to her own bed. That’s when the negotiations begin. “Mama, can you just stay here for a few minutes?” A domestic hostage situation ensues. Every time Sarah thinks Emmalee has dozed off, she stands up — only to kick off the whole drama anew. 

A few nights ago, I attempted to free my wife from the saboteur, er … toddler, holding her captive. In a dash of daring-do, I negotiated Sarah’s release in exchange for myself (who said chivalry is dead?). As I sat there, Emmalee tried to rationalize my captivity. “Baba — if you stay here forever and ever, we can be friends. We can make cupcakes and read stories.” 

I started to understand how Stockholm syndrome sets in. “Emmalee, just go to sleep — we can do those things tomorrow.” 

“But Baba … ”

“Emmalee, go to sleep.” I set a 10 minute alarm on vibrate as she quieted down. I figured it would wake me up and if the beast was asleep, I could sneak out. I felt the vibration in my hands just as I had dozed off. Gingerly, I stood up — and one of the joints of my feet popped, ratting me out to my captor. 

“BABA! You can’t go! STAY HERE. Don’t you love me?”

“Emmalee I love you — now GO TO SLEEP!” And that’s when she started weeping, forcing me back into the rocking chair prison in which I seemed destined to spend that night. 

It was 3:30 in the morning and in the pits of my frustration I had yelled “go to sleep” at a toddler. And that got me thinking. The whole night’s fiasco was driven by an anxious doom loop in which my daughter’s anxiety leaves her frantic for some accompaniment. That anxiety takes hold of all of her talents of persuasion, as she mashes every button that might get us to just give in. The irony is that yelling only makes the anxiety worse and her attempts to control the situation more desperate. 

Anxiety is one of our most powerful human emotions. And though a little anxiety is a good thing — helping you focus as you study for that exam or step up to the lectern for that speech — too much does precisely the opposite. And the thing about it is that the fears upon which we fixate are nearly always baseless. Anxiety doesn’t emerge from facts, it emerges from distortions of facts we use to justify our fear. Fear drives distortions, distortions drive fear.

And as much as we wish we grew out of the kind of anxiety my toddler experiences sleeping in her own bed, we don’t. Sure, the nature of the fears change and we’re better at covering it up — but that raw fear abides. 

More than 40% of Americans are choosing not to get fully vaccinated. The same proportion believe, despite all evidence, the Big Lie that the loser of the last election lost because it was rigged. These beliefs and choices aren’t founded in any form of fact. Rather, they’re based in a collective, sublimated anxiety that a subset of our society has about its future. 

Some of that anxiety emerges out of the collective insecurity resulting from an economy that has locked people out: incomes among the bottom 50% of Americans have stagnated, while billionaires made trillions in the last year alone. Our profit-obsessed healthcare system fails low-income Americans every day, though it is the single biggest cause of financial ruin among them.

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Some of it emerges out of a fear of loss of cultural hegemony. Some believe that a shifting narrative seeking to include women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people in our national identity necessarily comes at their exclusion — a belief that can only be held by those who had sought to exclude the others in the first place. 

Fear drives distortions. Many of the same people whose parents lined them up for a polio vaccine when they were children are now falling prey to — and often driving — conspiracy theories about the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. The same people whose parents fought for our democracy in World War II are claiming that democracy is a sham because it didn’t deliver their chosen candidate. That’s not reason — its distortion driven by fear.

But here’s the thing: yelling at fear doesn’t make it go away. It amplifies it. Yelling “Trust the Science!” at someone who’s afraid of vaccinating does little to allay their underlying fear. Rather, it gives them more reason not to trust — you, the vaccine, “the science.” Yelling at a Trumper only backs them further into his sway, proof that “the other side” is scary.

Here’s what I should have done (and what I did the next day). I should have walked over to Emmalee’s bed, held her hand or rubbed her back, and told her that there’s nothing to be afraid of — and that she’d feel better if she went to sleep. Soothe her fear, cut through the distortion. But in reality, my toddler fell asleep only out of sheer exhaustion that night.

And that’s where the metaphor fails. Giving up for sheer exhaustion is not likely to happen when it comes to vaccine resistors or proponents of the Big Lie. So lest we continue to drive the anxiety that’s keeping millions of Americans from getting vaccinated or believing in a lie told by a narcissist, we need to find our empathy. Rather than amplify the fear that drives the distortions, perhaps we ought to soothe that fear while cutting its distortions. I’m not advocating for back rubs or hand-holding, but a little kindness and empathy might go a bit further than blanket condemnation and culture war.

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