Intentional Nonsense and How to Use it Sensibly

Ever find yourself talking to a child (or an adult) about a problem and no matter how many different angles you look at it from they keep coming up with the same answer?  No matter what you say, what solution you present, it’s not going to work. Sometimes our kids are just stuck, and we can get looped in and stuck with them. Finally you throw up your arms in defeat and walk away.  Or maybe you direct your frustration to your child - “Why are you being so difficult?!”

These are the moments when all of the adult reason and sense in the world isn’t going to get them unstuck.  It’s like putting the wrong key into a lock, you can jam it to the side as hard as you want, you may even break the key off, but the lock isn’t going to open.  What do we do when sense and reason just aren’t working?

When being sensible fails, try intentional nonsense.

Intentional nonsense is a category of questions or lines of thought that are nonsense on purpose.  The point isn’t to solve the problem, it’s to shift us out of our ‘fix it,’ logical brain, into our creative brain.  It helps us switch out of the circuit we were running around to no avail, and try something new. Ironically, this often leads us to a solution.

To see what this looks like in action, here’s an example:

A child is throwing a fit about not wanting to put on his jacket, even though it is winter.  His parent has already tried, “It’s cold out, you’ll get sick.” (logic). “Look, I’m wearing a jacket and so is your sister.” (social confirmation).  And, “We’re going to be late to meet your friends at the park because we aren’t leaving until you put your coat on. (Consequences). The child is still stuck, crossing his arms and refusing to put on the coat.  

Here’s an example of intentional nonsense:

“If you’re not going to put on your coat, will you put on your lion fur?”  Let’s both put on our lion fur. (Parent starts pretending and roaring like a lion).  

The hope is that the child joins in on the roaring and the deadlock about the coat is released.  Then, once the connection is reestablished the child may be okay with putting on their coat. It’s not a sure bet, but it’s something to try. If you’re already stuck there is really nothing to lose, and who doesn’t enjoy a good roar?  

Here’s another scenario with an older child:

Your 12 year old child comes home very frustrated about a social conflict at school where he is feeling left out.  After going through several strategies about how to resolve the conflict you are both stuck.

Intentional nonsense:

“What would __insert favorite superhero, tv show character etc._ do?”

“What advice would __insert family pet__ give you?”

One of the joys of this strategy is that it releases the expectation of trying to solve the problem.  Often when I ask kids questions like this there is laughter, or a deep sigh as they let go of the feelings they were just in.  It doesn’t matter what Batman would do of course, that’s nonsense! What matters is letting go of the thought “there’s only one way, and it’s not going to work.”  After we let that go, the world of possibility opens up again.

Ben Howort