Confrontation

NO! The most dangerous word in the English language – or any language for that matter – for parents and children.  When children say it, mom’s hackles are raised.  When parents’ say it, children are ready for battle.  “No,” is definitely a no-win strategy with children.

A reader made an interesting comment in response to an earlier post on anger, which illustrates this issue.  Mom23 writes about her five year old:  “I’ll say ‘No juice before dinner’, and he’ll say, ‘Yes!’ and march over to the fridge and get it.  I’m stuck in the moment:  if I let it go, he gets the impression he doesn’t have to listen.  If I don’t let it go, I’m in for a one to two hour battle I may not have the time and energy for.”

This is a dilemma familiar to many parents.  What is at work is the feeling that the child’s defiance (or disobedience) has to be stopped immediately, and that the only two possibilities are “his way or my way.”  Along these lines another reader comments: “What’s the fine line between tolerance (of a child’s anger) and promoting the idea of having respect for one’s mother or father?”

Although two different points are being made in these comments, they both reflect the idea that if the child’s (mis)behavior does not take priority, the consequences will be undesirable – or unacceptable.   Challenges to parental authority seem to call for an immediate response, and that response most often is to try to stop and/or correct the behavior rather than to try to address what is behind it.   Now the stage is set for a confrontation and power struggle – as our reader says, “…a one to two hour battle”.

Why do we think that the heat of emotion makes for a teachable moment – when often what we’re feeling is, “it’s time to teach him a lesson”, which has a very different meaning.  The idea of responding to what is behind the child’s behavior instead of trying to stop or correct it, can mistakenly feel as though we are doing nothing about it.

Let’s think about that.  In the example of the five year old and the juice, his behavior sounds like defiance.  Although he is defying his mother’s authority, he is also saying something about himself: “I am a big strong boy and don’t need your permission because I can do things myself.”  He is at a stage where autonomy is important to him, and his mom’s “No” feels like an attack on his own sense of self.  He’s ready to do battle to defend it.

Does that mean that mom is supposed to let him do whatever he wants?  Of course not.  But it does mean that if she understands where his behavior is coming from, that understanding can give her some better idea of how to respond to him.  Clearly, trying to be the boss at this moment is not going to be productive.

A five year olds’ feeling that he no longer needs his mother is obviously unrealistic.  Not only does he need his mother, she is also responsible for him.  But there is a difference between being in charge, and acting like “the boss”.  The lesson she needs to teach him relates to the other comment quoted earlier: about respect.  He needs to learn to respect her wishes.

This is not something that can be taught and learned in one encounter – and with young children there will be no shortage of learning opportunities!    It would be so nice if our children just did what we wanted them to do because we said so.  But it doesn’t work that way.  As they grow and develop, our children begin to spread their wings and assert themselves.  And let’s not forget that in many ways we want that to happen.  They have to be able to fly off on their own one day!

What we want our children to learn is that they need to respect our wishes not because we are bigger, stronger and more powerful – that won’t always be the case, anyway.  The real reason is that mutual respect is what enables people to live together without constant, unpleasant conflict.  Our children have to begin to see the connection between the many ways in which we do respect their wishes and the consideration we also expect from them.  Learning this is a process, one that is often difficult for both  parent and child.

How does this apply to moments of conflict such as the example here?  One way might be instead of using the provocative “No”, responding to what the child is asking for, while moving things in the direction you want to go.  “I hear you, you’re thirsty.  Let’s see if we can find something that will be better to drink before dinner.”  Also, if you confirm for him that of course he is able to get it himself because he is a big, strong boy, he may be better able to hear that sometimes he has to respect your wishes, just as in other ways you respect his.

This approach may not solve things the first time, or many times after.  But we know that learning takes repetition and consistency.  Nothing terrible will happen if he defeats your intention by getting the juice himself – unless you feel defeated.  There will be  moments later on to review the episode with him and point out that just because he can do things himself doesn’t mean it is always a good idea to do so.

It’s hard to step back in the face of a child’s defiance.  Saying “No” may seem like a shortcut, and may better match the way we feel.  But what is gained from a one or two hour battle?

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