May 01st, 2018

I won't do it....and you can't make me!

Have you ever heard that line? Has your child ever just blankly refused to do what you’ve asked? Is there anything more infuriating to a parent than sheer defiance? It pushes buttons for most parents and makes us see red. We’re supposed to be in charge, right? We feel really powerless when our child refuses to do what we’ve asked, and we realise they’re right….we can’t make them do it. When they’re very small we can bundle them into their buggies or car seats (although it’s a real struggle if they’re doing that banana back thing) and pick them up and remove them from the playground or pluck them out of the bath. But that ability fades quickly. My middle son was always tall for his age and he very quickly got to the point where I couldn’t man-handle him anymore so luckily that forced me to find some alternative methods for encouraging cooperation.

It’s not only true that we can’t make our kids do things but I firmly believe that it’s the wrong approach to even try to force them into compliance. Wise communications guru Michael Grinder says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power.” We do better when we use our influence rather than force partly because it’s much more effective in gaining cooperation but also because there are a number of downsides to using compulsion.

• If adults use their greater power to compel a child to do something they don’t want to do we are modelling a bullying approach to persuasion that they may well adopt themselves in their interactions with their peers and siblings, and even with us. How would you feel if your child said to a friend “You have to play my game how I say or I won’t be your friend” or to you “I won’t do my homework unless I get 2 hours of iPad time”?
• Or a child may respond to coercion by shutting down. She may become compliant alright but maybe also docile and unable to form or voice opinions.
• All human beings need to have some agency in their lives. Feeling like we have some control is essential for our happiness. The opposite experience, that nothing we do matters, that we can’t influence events, that our opinions or feelings don’t matter leads to helplessness, which is at the root of depression. All parents know that children start to exert themselves as toddlers and test the limits of their power. How parents respond to this is crucial for their happiness and for their ability to interact with empathy.

Of course parents need to be in charge. We have the mature brains and experience, perspective and impulse control (hopefully) that our children don’t have and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are safe and to teach them good habits for life. But we can do this without force. We can balance the need to keep a child safe with their need to explore and develop (whether they’re toddlers climbing on the sofa or teenagers connecting with their peer group). We can follow a necessary adult agenda and balance that with their desire to follow their own agenda. We can teach them right from wrong without making them wrong. There are limits to their power but they must have some power. It is the daily judgments on where to find this balance that makes up parenting.

So how do we use influence rather than force? Make very strong connections with your child so that they want to do what you ask.

• Make sure you spend as much positive time with your child as possible, just having fun. Not doing chores or acquiring accomplishments, but just enjoying an activity together. Make sure fun time is regular- schedule it or it won’t happen. Ensure your child knows how much you enjoy spending time with her.
• Sometimes the adult agenda has to prevail. When this happens acknowledge what your child would like to happen and how he feels. Sometimes they have to take medicine or do homework or stop doing something they’re enjoying. I know you’d really like to stay at the park for longer wouldn’t you? You were having so much fun on the swing and getting it to go really high. You love the feeling you get from going fast don’t you? It’s exciting. We need to get home so mummy can make tea but I know that doesn’t seem very important to you right now does it? You’re disappointed. I wonder if we can think of something to make it easier for you? I’ll think of something and you think of something and then we’ll pool our ideas ok? You had a really good idea of singing the Dingle Dangle Scarecrow last time. Maybe you could think of a different song this time?
• Use all your language skills - words, facial expressions and body language - to let your child know how much you appreciate and approve of them. Descriptive (evidence-based) praise will convey that much more credibly than conventional praise. I appreciate that you didn’t make much of a fuss when we had to leave the playground. Although you were sad you thought of something to make yourself happier. That’s what I call good problem-solving. Because we’re going home now I’ll have some time to play after tea. Would you like to think of a really super-duper game we can play before bath?
• Give choices where you’re happy with both outcomes. Would you like to come back to this park again tomorrow or shall we go to the one near Jane’s house? Shall we play UNO or snakes and ladders before bath? Would you like to do homework before tea or after? Would you like to ride your scooter to school or walk?
• When your child doesn’t do what he’s supposed to think about it from his perspective. Why didn’t he do it? Chances are there was an emotion behind his refusal. What was it? Was he angry or feeling bossed around? Describe it to him. Maybe it feels like people are telling you what to do all the time. I guess you’d like to say what happens sometimes. You’re right I can’t make you do anything and people shouldn’t try to make others do things. And all of us have to do things that we don’t really feel like doing in the moment because it’s good for us or good for others. It can be hard sometimes. Let him know the feeling is ok and he is ok even though he needs to do what he’s asked. Explain why you’re asking him to do this thing. State your values. We all have to go to bed so that our bodies get the sleep they need to be strong and so that our brains work well and we’re not crabby. Mummy too. Ask him how you can support him to do what’s required. Be patient. You’re raising a child and it takes time.

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January 16th, 2018

3 short steps to cooperation heaven

As a parenting goal cooperation should be the bare minimum we’re aspiring to. And indeed we often have loftier ambitions for our children. I asked my class yesterday what qualities they’d like to see in their children when they were adults and they said they’d like their kids to have the following characteristics:

Confidence
Respectfulness
Hard working
Positivity
Empathy
Responsibility
Independence
Fun-loving
Mindfulness
Of course they wanted them to be happy and successful but the traits listed above were those that they thought would contribute to success and happiness.

We can encourage all of those qualities in our children but to do that we need to have a measure of cooperation. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect our children not to have feelings about what they need to do or want them to never express an opinion. (Although some parents have ruefully said they’d settle for some blind compliance.) But sometimes kids (and adults) need to do things they don’t particularly love doing. Of course as adults, with our more mature brains, we have greater perspective and ability to curb our impulses. Our ability to delay gratification and do something less palatable in the short term in the interest of a long term goal is greater than our children’s. (Maybe…)

It’s our job as parents to teach our children good habits that will last a lifetime. They need to do things like tidy their room or put their clothes in the laundry or brush their teeth or go to bed or do their homework or get off the computer or eat healthy food, which they may not see the point of. That’s why it’s our job. We need them to cooperate.

We all know that you can make a child do what they have to do using a stick approach. Maybe when you were a child you were threatened with punishments or withdrawal of privileges (also punishment) or were reprimanded and put down (punishment again) or even smacked (yep, punishment) if you didn’t do what you were told or expected to do. And you turned out alright. I’m sure you did. But you may nonetheless want to bring your children up in a different way.

And there are significant downsides to the stick approach. When a person holding a greater amount of power (the parent) uses that power to instill fear and to control the behaviour of a person with less power (the child) that is bullying. That’s not something we want to model for our children. When they think about it most parents agree that they want their children to grow up to be adults who, when faced with conflict, can use reason to persuade not just bludgeon others into their point of view. (Eg not Donald Trump.)

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating bribing your children to do what’s necessary for their own learning or for the good of the household. I’m talking about motivating your kids to want to do what you ask them to do. (Of course you need to ask them to do reasonable things for their own good not just get you a beer from the fridge when you’re watching TV.) Children have an evolved instinct to want their care-givers’ attention and approval. They want us to be pleased with them; they need it for their survival. I know it doesn’t always look like it but kids start off with a basic imperative to want to get things right and to please their parents. Though this can wane if their parents’ approval is not forthcoming.

So if we want our children’s cooperation one of the first things to work on connecting with them. Do you spend positive, fun time with your kids or is your time with them all about getting from A to B, doing homework, eating meals, doing chores and getting to bed? Do you end up nagging and chivvying or even shouting? If you don’t have a positive relationship there is less incentive for children to curb their own impulses to do what they want to do (difficult for their undeveloped rational brains) and instead do what makes us happy.

So let’s assume you’re prioritising spending positive times with them, playing, in conversation and doing things they like to do, not just ferrying them to enriching adult-directed extra-curricular activities. You’re giving them the message that you really enjoy their company. How else do you give your child the sense that you value them? Well, tell them. But don’t just say “you’re a great kid”. It has to be more descriptive than that to be credible. Instead appreciate them generally like: “I love it when you tell us stories about what happened at Scouts. You do a perfect impersonation of Akela. You really have observed the way he speaks very accurately.” Or “I was thinking of you today when I was walking the dog. I saw some daffodils just poking out of the ground and I was thinking that Spring is coming and how you love it when the flowers come out.” Or with more specific praise: “Thank you for remembering to feed the dog without me reminding you. You’re being very responsible about this dog.” “I know it’s hard for you to stop playing your new computer game when your time is up. It’s very compelling. It takes great self-control so well done.”

Against that backdrop it makes it much easier for you to influence your child. They are listening to you more. So when you have to ask them to do something use these 3 simple steps (simple to understand, not necessarily easy to do):

  1. Stop what you’re doing (put your phone down) and go to your child. (Don’t yell an instruction up the stairs.) Engage with him positively. When he looks at you descriptively praise him.
  2. Give the instruction in clear, simple, authoritative language, only ONCE. You can ask your child to tell you in their own words what it is they have to do but you can’t repeat it or he will get used to you repeating yourself over and over and it will become a nag.
  3. Stay in your child’s space and follow through. Empathise if they don’t want to do it and offer them a meaningful rationale for doing the task. Descriptively praise any small steps (and I mean small) in the right direction.

With these 3 steps you will be on your way to cooperation heaven.

 

 

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August 03rd, 2015

How to get kids to do what you ask - in three easy steps

How many times have you asked your children to do something – put the milk back in the fridge, hang up a wet towel, brush their hair … the first response you’ll hear back could be any of the following … ‘just a sec’, ‘I already did it’  - as the milk remains on the counter, the un-brushed breath still horrendous!)  The truth is that when we ask our children to do something, we have an underlying expectation: 

I expect that she will do it
IMMEDIATELY
THE WAY I WANT HER TO DO IT
EVERY SINGLE TIME
FULL OF GRATITUDE THAT SHE WAS ASKED IN THE FIRST PLACE! 

Now, let’s say, you’re getting dinner ready and your child calls down for help with homework.  What is your likely first response?  I’m just guessing that it’s not to put everything on hold and race upstairs.  You’re more likely to shout up a ‘Just a minute’ or ‘Be there in a sec”.  We are just as unlikely to drop all that we’re doing – the important things on our own agendas – and immediately run and do what has been asked of us (unless it is a serious emergency).   

It’s just the same with our children.  Our children also have their own agendas.  They have their heads in a good book, or that Lego construction is almost complete, the puzzle only has 5 more pieces to go, they’ve nearly finished that level of Minecraft … and we jump in and expect that they will drop everything and happily do exactly what we’ve asked, to our standards!

Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that our children don’t have to do what is required.  There is however, a really great way to ensure that it gets done in a positive way … without the nagging, cajoling and shouting … and in just three easy steps!  These steps assume that your child has a clear understanding of your family rules and knows what is required of them.   Let’s say one of your rules is ‘Dinner is at 6pm.’ 

Step One:      Go to your child. Rather than shouting from one room (or floor) to another. This is a no brainer … especially as your kids might not hear you otherwise.  You save yourself the frustration of shouting.  Engage with them in whatever it is that they’re doing.  ‘What are you reading?’ ‘Where are you up to?’ ‘Wow, you’re almost finished the whole puzzle!’ ‘I can’t believe you got so much of the Hogwarts set built’, ‘That game looks amazing’.

Step Two:      Give the instruction. It’s 6 o’clock.  You know what that means, right?  That’s right … dinner!  And you’ve looked at me –thank you.  Two more pieces and we need to go. Ask them to tell you what they have to do.

Step Three:  Follow through.  Stay in their space and acknowledge small steps in the right direction.  Empathise with any resistance that comes up.  

It IS possible!  I used it just tonight as my daughter was next door, drawing with her friend.  I went to her, had a look at what she was drawing, told her that it was 6pm and that dinner was on the table.  She asked if she could go back after dinner.  I told her that as she was already heading to the door of course she could go back! 

Three easy steps!  Give it a go!

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