by Elisabeth Stitt
YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!
Has your child said that to you? Did it make your blood boil? It can be really hard when a pint-sized person pits every cell in his body against you and down right scary when he is taller and outweighs you. Of course, all you want is what is best for him--clean teeth or the benefit of kale or the sleep that will restore her brain--and there he is, hands clenched, opposing you strenuously, demanding his due as a person with his own wants, needs and desires. You might be tempted to wring his neck.
But did you ever ask yourself what you are doing to contribute to your child's bad attitude?
MISTAKE #1: Treating your children rudely.
Not being rude does not mean we don't get to tell our kids what to do. We do. What it really means is that we need to show our children the same consideration we would show a work colleague, a neighbor or spouse in asking them to do something. We wouldn't dream of just demanding that a neighbor do something. No way! We are polite. We say please and thank you. We use softening phrases like "I would really like it if..." or "It would be very much appreciated if..." and then we make our request. I hope you would never march up to a neighbor and demand compliance instantly. And yet we do it with our kids all the time.
Now, that being said. With strong willed children, less is often more. Using too many words will allow for loopholes and ambiguity. You will command--not demand. What's the difference? The tone and the attitude. A command is clear, firm and confident: Coats on hooks, please! The tone is not harsh, strident or critical. The attitude is not I-am-your-mother-so-you-better-listen-to-me-or-else. No. Your cheerful reminder needs to connote we are a family and this is our routine.
Some people say you shouldn't thank children for tasks you expect them to do anyway. I disagree. I am big in favor of thank you. My husband is the hunter and gatherer in our house. He pretty much always takes responsibility for ordering and picking up take out. Just because it is the pattern in our house that that is his regular job--to the point where I expect that he will do it without having to ask him--does that mean I am not going to thank him? Of course, not. I am very grateful to be fed. I am always going to say thank you. In the same way, when my kids set or clear the table or take out the garbage, I show my appreciation. I certainly have trained them to say thank you to me for the things I do to make our house run more smoothly.
MISTAKE #2: Demanding instant compliance my way or the highway
Clearly, we are not going to stop making demands on our children. We expect them to do their homework, to eat their dinner and to take the family dog for a walk. On the other hand, we need to recognize how hard it is for a strong, independent soul to be told when, how and where to do something--especially without any explanation. I don't know if you feel this way, but I find it very annoying to have to put down something I am doing to jump up to do someone else's bidding. I still remember cringing at the sound of my mother's heals coming briskly through the house. I never knew when she was going to swoop in with some proclamation of What-needs-to-be-done-right-now! It wasn't that I didn't want to be helpful. I just wanted some advance warning, so I wouldn't get caught in the middle of an especially good chapter of Nancy Drew.
The trick to finding the balance between your child as an individual with wants and needs and the needs of the big picture is choice. Keeping within the guidelines of what will work for your family, look to where you can offer choice, starting with questions like do you want peas or squash and moving on to choices like would you like to do your homework before snack or after? There are lots of ways to give your child some options without giving up the expectation that something is going to be a certain way. If you find it difficult, think through your child's day and write down the choices you might offer. Here are some examples to help guide you:
With little kids:
Would you like to fly to the car or be a choochoo train?
Am I brushing alligator teeth tonight or polar bear?
Are we washing your face first or brushing teeth?
Are you going to brush your teeth and have me inspect or am I going to
brush your teeth and have you inspect?
Do you want your dinosaur coat or your penguin sweater?
Is your coat Elsa's cape or an invisibility cloak?
With elementary school kids
Are you going to do math first or reading?
Would you like to chop the veggies now or be in charge of stirring the soup later?
Do you want to take a walk or shoot some baskets?
Are you taking your bath before dinner or after?
Do you want to work here or in the kitchen?
With middle school and high school kids
Would you like to walk the dog this morning or this afternoon?
Would you like to walk the dog or clean out the fish tank?
When cleaning the garage are you going to clear the heavy things or the light things first?
Are you wearing a dress or nice slacks to the theater?
We are having dinner at Grandma's tonight. Will you drive with us or meet us there?
If your child chooses to put off the task until later, you can double check that he has agreed to do the task at the time with no further argument. If your child won't choose either, you can offer another choice: Propose an option that will work for me, or I will choose for you. A child who is unused to being given choices and is just blindly rebelling against being told what to do will push the limits for a while to see if you really mean it. Just stand firm; she will come around eventually.
MISTAKE #3 Telling your kids to do the same thing twice
When I learned to train my dog, the dog learned what he needed to learn in around six weeks. It took me six months. The hardest part for me to learn was to give the command once and then use my focus and body to see that he followed through. When we call out commands from the other room or as we are busy adding salt to the soup, we cannot expect to be taken seriously. Think about it. How responsive are you? Do you leap the first time your child makes a request for something? I bet not. Usually we keep doing whatever task we are involved with and wait either until a natural break in the task or until the child ups the ante in his insistence. Likewise, your kids will not follow your wishes when requests are made in such a haphazard way.
Here's what to do If you want your child to do something the first time you ask: Stop what you are doing. Go to the child, get his attention and make the request (cheerfully, firmly, confidently). Now, I am assuming that you have already corrected Mistake #2 and have given your child some choice about when or how to do the chore, so now you are really giving a reminder. Stay present until your child transitions to the requested task. Make eye contact. You may need to put your hand on whatever it is the child is doing. Let your eye contact and perhaps a hand on the shoulder do the work here. You don't need to repeat yourself, just be quietly, calmly unyielding. Most children will shift to the agreed upon task. Some will need to have a tantrum before they do it. The tantrum is likely totally unrelated to the request at hand. That's okay. Let him have the tantrum anyway. We he has had a good cry, he will be ready to follow through on the task. Obviously, the more you have done this with your kids when they are young, the more they will know that you are not moving until they move.
MISTAKE #4Treating your kid as an unthinking child rather than as a reasonable human being
You want your kids' cooperation--not just today but over time. Short term compliance is easy to get with yelling and intimidation. You get it at the cost of the long term relationship, however. Your goal needs to be to include your children in a way that honors who they are at their core.
In his work The Prophet. Kalhil Gibran, the 19th century philosopher, writes
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
What this really means is that we have to be very careful about telling our children what to do and how to be. That authoritarian approach appears to work with mild children who just want to make everyone happy, but it is at a very high cost. Telling your child what to do all the time can end in one of two ways: rebellion (and that makes life miserable for everyone) or submission, which appears to be the better option but results in children who are not only afraid to express their own views but who may cease to have opinions all together. If every time you open your mouth to express a desire or interest, you are redirected or immediately shut down, you very quickly learn not to express your preferences.
Even well intentioned parents fall into this trap. It is time to pick next year's classes, and a parent gushes about how beautiful French is and why would anyone want to learn a language as guttural as German. This parent may well think she has left the choice to her child. But such a comment will feel like a proclamation to a mild mannered child. The mild-mannered child would never risk falling into the group of people his mother has contempt for (ie, those who want to learn guttural languages); he will certainly take French rather than risk her disapproval or disappointment. The rebellious child may well choose German just for satisfaction of thwarting his mother. Neither child has chosen out of true interest.
So, how do we find the balance? Of course it is your job to keep your child safe, and it is also your job to raise an adult who treats others kindly and behaves with consideration for the wider community. At the same time, it is not respectful to constantly tell your child what to do, how to behave and certainly not to suggest that they may or may not like something. This is a slippery slope. Think how often we tell our young children to try something to eat. You'll like it! we say in a bright cheery voice. I remember I told my mother once that I didn't want to go to the beach, and she said to me, "Of course, you want to go to the beach. You love the beach!" And that is true. I do love the beach. But that day I didn't feel like going to the beach. How presumptuous of her discount my opinion and brush it aside. Similar events happened often enough that I found it was much easier to just not care very much--about where we went or what we ate or what we did when we got there. A rebellious child, on the other hand, who is not given some space to assert herself will not shut down. No, she will push back harder and harder until every request becomes a battle.
The way to give your child space to assert herself is by using open ended questions that require her to think and plan. More open ended questions might look like this:
What kind of help do you anticipate needing with your homework this week?
Here is a list of activities that will work with our schedule this fall. Which do you want?
Of everything that we do over the Christmas season, what is most important to you?
It is important to me that we go to the Christmas Eve service. I know you don't
like going to the evening service. Can you think of anything that will make
it easier to go?
If you get cold in that outfit how are you going to deal with it in a way that doesn't
impact the rest of the family negatively?
The pediatrician is concerned that you are not getting the protein you need. Here is list of good protein sources. Please rank them from the one you are most willing to try to least willing to try.
Wet towels left on the floor get moldy and stink up the place. Please come up with a plan to make sure that doesn't happen.
These questions acknowledge that your child is a person and can be part of the solution. Your expectations are still clear. Homework will get done, kids will sign up for activities and protein will be eaten. If the child feels her views are heard and considered, she will be more willing to go along even when your answer is no and even when it is not something she really wants to do.
Perhaps you grew up in a household where you just did what your parents told you to do. You didn't talk back. You didn't question it. Those kinds of households are increasingly rare, however. Society has shifted such that we no longer blindly accept authority--not that of our police keeping forces, not that of our bosses, not that of our teachers, and by extension not that of our parents. For this reason, cooperation has to be earned and won. And actually, that is fine with me. Treating kids respectfully teaches and models for them how to treat others respectfully. We want our kids to be thinkers. We want them to come up with solutions that will work for the whole family.
Correct these four mistakes that often have your kids talking back to you, and you will be on your way to having a more harmonious home.
Is talking back a big problem in your family? Let's do a complimentary 20-minute strategy session. I'd love to help you fix these issues with your particular child. Sign up HERE.
Please leave a comment. What techniques have worked for you when it comes to backtalk? My post Set Your Kids Free: 10 Things They Need to Be Able to Do on Their Own by Middle School generated a lot of interest. Engaging your kids in a positive way about cooperation in your household is another of those skills that your kids should have mastered by middle school. It is all a part of taking responsibility for your own actions within the context of the greater community (in this case the family community).
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