Recently, while dining out at a local restaurant, I overheard a conversation between two parents and their young son. At issue was the food to be ordered for the child. The mother asked her son what he wanted for dinner. The child stated that he wanted a plain hamburger with lots of ketchup and nothing else. His mother responded with, “You’ve had too many hamburgers this week. You need to eat something healthier.” The child retorted, “But I want a hamburger.” The mother then told her son that she wanted him to eat some vegetables. The son’s response, “I don’t like vegetables.” At this point, the mother said, “How about carrots and mashed potatoes? You like those.” The child quipped, “I don’t want those.” The bantering about food went on with both parents suggesting various healthy food choices. As the exchanges progressed, the child became increasingly more agitated and obstinate. Finally, the wife commented to her husband that perhaps they needed to leave. The father disagreed and after a few additional exchanges, the food debate was resolved with the mother saying that it was not worth the fight. Several minutes later the boy was happily enjoying his dinner - a hamburger with lots of ketchup. (Victory!)
The above example is not unlike the familiar 'modus operandi' seen in the grocery store check-out line: a child begs for candy, or some other item displayed, the parent refuses but the child continues to beg. The parent then gives the child reasons for their refusal to no avail. The child continues to beg/whine until the exasperated parent finally agrees to the child’s demands and the begging and whining instantly cease.
Similar scenes occur daily in households throughout our nation. Children, having mastered the tactics that will ensure that they get what they want, confidently hold the upper hand. As tactical successes accrue, they begin to view themselves on the same plane as their parents. (Ouch!)
Why the Stinger Stings?
Guilt and exhaustion are two reasons parents often cite for giving in to children. Working parents want the time they spend with their children to be free of discord. When the whining and begging start, it is simply easier to give in than deal with the fall out.
Young children do not give much thought to the connection between a specific behavior and the resulting consequence. Living in the moment, when asked an open-ended question (i.e., "What do you want for dinner?", "Do you want to wear a coat?"), they answer following little, if any, reflective thought. Understanding behavior-consequence connections is a process that occurs incrementally throughout the course of childhood. Allowing children too much decision-making freedom too early in life becomes breeding ground for resistance to authority. (Oh, my!)
How to avoid the Set Up and the Sting
Until about age 13, parents must be the ultimate decision makers, assuring their children that ‘yes means yes and no means no.’ Observing adults making sound decisions serves as a model by which children learn how to do likewise and provides an underpinning of security. As they mature, allowing children to make decisions that involve ‘narrow’ choices (usually two) provides them the opportunity to incrementally experience the behavior-consequence relationship.
From age 13 on, the most beneficial child-rearing approach is for adults to serve as a guide on the side, providing opportunities for teens to make decisions independently with the understanding that all behavior choices have consequences. If wanting to do something unwise or too risky, the better parental approach is to say something like, “We can’t agree to that because (simple, direct, logical reason), but we can agree to ______________ or _______________. Whichever one you choose, we will support.”
Don't put off until tomorrow behaviors that need to be addressed today. Each time a parent gives in to unacceptable behavior, the child becomes the victor. Giving in to unreasonable demands can lead to the development of an exaggerated sense of self and set the stage for challenging behavior to become the norm.
Early childhood campfires are easier to put out than teenage wildfires!
©Sharon Knapp Lamberth