How do little children manage to reduce their big, powerful parents to feelings of frustration and helplessness? Issues between mothers and children often begin to arise when parents’ wishes and children’s wishes start to collide – as in the two-year old period (Terrible Twos anyone?)
Two things begin to happen around this time: children having acquired more skills, begin to express a will of their own. But also, realistically or not, mothers begin to expect a level of behavior they did not expect earlier when their children still seemed like babies. This is particularly true when children begin to speak – and learn to say “no!”. That’s when you start to say “I know he understands, why won’t he listen?”
But understanding is not what it’s about. What it’s about is parents wanting one thing, children wanting another; parents feeling that children should do what they, the parents want, and children feeling that parents should do what they, the children want. Everyone knows that conflicts arise when people live together and compromises have to be made. But when it comes to parents and children, the assumption is that the parents’ wishes should prevail. After all, parents are responsible for their children.
Children simply don’t operate under this assumption. It makes no sense to them that they have to stop playing to get dressed, or eat breakfast, or take a bath, or go to bed…. just because parents, in their grown-up, irrational world say so. So they protest – through the kinds of behavior that lead to power struggles and then Time-Out. If power isn’t the solution, how can we resolve what actually is a conflict between Mom’s wishes and her child’s?
Often it seems as if the only way to avoid the power struggle is for Mom to do what her child wants. This turns out not to be a useful solution. It leaves a mother feeling that her child is the one in charge, but it can also give a child the message that making a big fuss is the way to get what you want.
Basically, we’re asking a child to pay attention – to be considerate – of his mother’s requests. The best way to teach a child to do this, is by considering his wishes while he is being asked to consider someone else. Yet how is this different from just “giving in” to your child, which leaves you feeling resentful and angry?
But consideration doesn’t mean doing what another person wants; it means to consider what the other person wants. The very act of considering gives a very different message than either insisting on what you want, or “giving in” to your child. It says to the child that he is being heard, that you understand that something is important to him even if he can’t have what he wants at this moment. It says that you are listening and he doesn’t have to scream or have a tantrum to make his case. A parent being reasonable is what teaches a child to be reasonable. Not right away and not every time, but it is the experience of being heard that teaches a child to hear others.
How does being reasonable translate into action? We have to begin by respecting children’s priorities, which are so different from our own. Of course, when health or safety is at issue, a parent’s concerns must prevail. And in the real world there is time, and schedules to be followed. But in many of the conflicts between parents and children, there is room to accommodate in some measure to a child’s ideas. Doing this means not assuming that your own idea automatically has priority and must be carried out.
A Mom told me about getting ready to read her son a story while he was shooting his ball into the basketball hoop in his room. He asked her to read while he continued throwing the ball. She refused, saying he would have to come and sit down if she was going to read. A major confrontation ensued which ended with no story and the child throwing something against the wall. Needless to say, the issue became what to do about the unacceptable behavior.
What other way could one approach this? Mom might have said to her son that it seemed as though he still wanted to play for a while before starting to read, and have given him time to finish. Or if that was not the issue she might have started to read and then told him that it was really too hard to read while the ball was bouncing. Either approach would have shown the boy her willingness to consider his wish to continue playing ball without actually giving up her own idea that it would be better to sit quietly together while reading.
Behavior that is objectionable often reflects a child’s solution to a problem. The solution he comes up with may not serve him well and our role is to help him find a better one rather than simply to punish him. Temper tantrums, dawdling, defiance, striking out, throwing things, are a child’s way of expressing feelings and wishes. Not a very good way of asking to be heard.
Most often we react only to this negative form of expression and don’t address the underlying problem. Time-Out does not offer the child a solution to the problem. It only teaches that parents have the power, which in turn either intensifies the child’s protest or ultimately defeats him.
Truly to teach, we need to show respect for our children’s wishes and feelings, suggest other ways of expressing them, and whenever possible meet them part way. Learning is a process which does not necessarily end in instant obedience. Time-Out does not lead to taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, which hopefully is our goal for our children.
It’s time to give “Time-Out” a time-out!