One of the biggest challenges a parent or other caregiver faces is avoiding struggles with the child. Struggles are a no-win situation. Many children, like junior lawyers, are great at arguing. Caregivers (CG) often cannot resist getting pulled into a lengthy argument, in which the child usually gets the upper hand. Although some parents tell me about their child’s arguing skills with pride, I know that parents letting children litigate is making a fool’s bargain.
The argument usually starts with the CG setting a limit. For example, the teenager comes home from school, drops his back pack on the floor, and lunges for the couch and the t.v. remote. The CG asks, “How much homework do you have tonight?” Child responds, “Not much. I did most of it in study hall.” The CG represses her skepticism and asks, “What about that English paper that is due Friday?” The child says, “Why are you always always acting like that? My teacher says that kids need to relax when they get home from school! I’ve had a hard day, and I need to chill a little bit before I do anything like homework!” CG: “I’m sorry. What was hard about your day?” Child: “None of your business. Don’t be so nosy. I wish you were like Jason’s parents. They leave him alone when he needs his space!”
One can empathize with the CG. By now she has three people aligned against her – her child, the teacher, and (maybe 4) Jason’s parents! Also, she hears the stress in his voice and she agrees that he needs time to relax. At the same time, she replays in her mind the past few weeks, when he has stayed up until midnight struggling with homework with diminishing returns, or given up, after “relaxing” in front of t.v. or texting with friends for hours after coming home from school. What should she do?
Before giving suggestions, let me point out that this problem most likely started long ago. It is a pattern that has old roots. Consider this situation. Preschool child is in a bad mood when she wakes up. First, she wants her red pants that are in the wash, and nothing else can satisfy her. Then she decides that she will make do with her silver Cinderella sandals, but it is 10 degrees outside and there is snow everywhere. Her mother has left for work and her father (CG) is trying to get her ready for school, where she has pronounced she is not going.He is thinking of a difficult client he has an appointment with first thing, and he is feeling stretched to the limit. Finally he gets his princess downstairs to the kitchen, and she demands coffee cake for breakfast, remembering the special treat they served to a guest the morning before. He thinks for a moment about what her mother will say if he gives in, but he says, “OK, coffee cake and then eggs (pointing to the eggs he has already prepared). She says “OK” but after the coffee cake, she touches the eggs with a fork and proclaims, “These are not the kind of eggs Mommy makes. I don’t want them.” Sound familiar?
The solution to both of these situations (and one does indeed follow the other) is strategy. When you are on the front lines of the battle, you can’t make strategy; you can only shoot or surrender. It is the generals who make strategy, and they don’t make strategy on the front lines but in the “war room”, protected and far away from the storm of battle. Strategy is also best made with at least two collaborators. They can bounce ideas off each other, balance each other’s extremes, recall data that the other has missed. They can make a plan. After they make a plan, they have to execute it, and then they have to practice it over and over again until it becomes a habit. When it is a habit, the old bad habit – the struggle pattern – starts to unravel and make way for the new pattern, a more secure and potentially collaborative one not just between generals but between generals and soldiers.
Let’s look at how strategy works in our two examples. With out teenager, CG says, “Well, I totally sympathize with you for needing to relax, but we agreed that there were no screens except computer for homework until homework is done. That lets you relax afterwards and get to bed in time for you to be rested. Can I get you a snack before you begin? I got you your favorite popcorn and a new vitamin drink of the kind you like.” If the child protests, the CG responds, “I’m so sorry, but you know that is what we (she and other CG) decided, and we all agreed that was best. I know it is hard.” Then she leaves the room. This last part is crucial, because if she stays, he may persuade her to give in or get into a struggle with him that takes up his homework time and drains her of all her emotional energy.
Now the preschooler: The CG says, “You know we said no coffee cake. You can have eggs or an energy bar in the car (he and his partner agreed on this beforehand). Which will it be? And, by the way, you can wear your Cinderella slippers in the car but your boots are going with you, and I am putting them in your cubby when we get there.” If she has a total meltdown, he can carry her to the car. CG’s of preschoolers, remember the example of the teenager when you feel tempted to give in. You can’t carry teenagers to the car, or anywhere. Start building healthy habits early. It is hard in the beginning, but it pays off.