Don’t pick battles with your children. Battles are between enemies and result in a win/lose situation. If you win, your child loses. We often forget this when we talk about not letting our children ‘get away with things’ and not letting them win.
Parents do need to provide discipline for children because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed (and won’t be until their 20s). So we have to lend them our higher brains with their greater capacity for rational thought and impulse control. We are not our children’s enemy –we are their teacher. The purpose of discipline is not to win, or to get revenge, but to teach. Effective discipline comes from influence over time rather than the exercise of power in the moment.
We need to make sure we avoid the terminology of battles even in our own minds because language shapes our experience and the more we talk or even think about battling with our kids the more that will happen. That’s how our brains work.
What makes you want to go into battle with your child? Is it when you’ve asked them nicely to do something several times and they ignore you? And then you calmly and reasonably give them a gentle warning that they won’t get their TV time or stories… and they ignore you. And then you shout… but they still ignore you. And then you take away the TV or story… and then they react. They act as if that came straight out of the blue and is the most unreasonable thing ever and you are the meanest mummy/daddy in the world.
Generally when people suggest picking your battles it means choosing which things you’re going to get into a lather about and ignoring the rest. At The Parent Practice we say don’t ignore behaviours that you’re not happy about and don’t battle over them. Don’t ignore but take small actions before the behaviour escalates too far and while you’re still calm enough to deal with it.
Take action sooner with take 2s –Get your child to do it again correctly. This works well for little things like saying please and thank you or speaking in a polite tone of voice or asking to get down from the table.
Here’s how you can teach rather than engaging in battles:
- Understand your child. Is what you’re asking them to do reasonable given his temperament and stage of development? Does he need time to transition from what he’s doing to what you’re asking him to do? As soon as parents start thinking about why kids aren’t cooperating and what their needs are then they can be more compassionate and more effective.
- Don’t give too many instructions. Young children are likely to forget parts of what you’ve asked them to do and they may feel nagged and tune you out. Reduce the number of instructions you give by having some written rules and routines and by asking the children what they need to do. They usually know.
- Children have their own set of priorities and their agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. They will give up on what they’re doing and submit to your control when there is the greater priority of pleasing you. That means they have to know that they can earn your approval.
- Give lots of approval with descriptive praise. This means that kids want to cooperate. And spend time with them doing fun things.
- Connect with your child. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want to do his homework, have a bath or stop playing and come to dinner. When we recognise how they feel about the situation children feel understood and are more likely to comply. Once feelings are heard much resistance disappears.
If something has gone wrong and you’re heading into battle mode:
- Take time to cool down - essential to avoid saying or doing something you’ll later regret.
- Connect –acknowledge the feelings driving the behaviour.
- Take constructive steps –have a problem-solving conversation without anger, blame or judgment (hence the need for the cool down) to help your child see why their actions were a mistake and what they can do about it. Use natural consequences (if they don’t get out of the bath promptly there’s no time for the story) or fixing consequences (clean up a mess or mend someone’s hurt feelings). Teach your child what to do differently next time –practice it.
Kids will get things wrong because they’re learning but the way we teach them how to behave will have long term ramifications for how they deal with disagreements in their lives. Instead of teaching them to get into battles don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use words to negotiate and compromise?
For more on Positive discipline techniques see www.theparentpractice.com