There are no step by step guides, no rights and wrongs, no quick fixes or easy solutions when it comes to parenting, especially, I find, when it comes to parenting without the use of rewards or punishments. It’s really about strategies, having lots of them up our sleeves, and judging the right time to use them.
One strategy I find I use many times every day is that of giving choices. This has been an essential tool for me when it comes to gaining the cooperation of my control-crazy child. “Just tell him” just doesn’t work. It’s a red flag to a bull, an open invitation for power struggles and day long conflict. Here are some examples:
Instead of “Come and put your shoes on”, try “Where are you going to sit to put your shoes on?”
Instead of “Brush your teeth and put your pyjamas on”, try “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in your pyjamas?”
Instead of just making his meal, give him a choice; “Do you want pasta or potatoes today?”
Instead of “Time to get out of the bath”, try “Are you ready to get out now, or would you like two more minutes?”
Open ended choices, however, I avoid; “What would you like for lunch?”, followed by a list of suggestions, is usually followed by a list of “No”s.
All sound a bit tedious? It can be! And my neighbours may attest to hearing me on occasion yelling at the top of my voice “Oh for God’s sake just put your pyjamas on!” or similar, especially towards the end of the day. However, overall, I’d say it’s a lot less exhausting, unpleasant, and remarkably quicker than the “just do what I say” approach. Power struggles can be time consuming as well as exhausting and unpleasant. Those two extra minutes in the bath are nothing compared to what could have been.
Some parents worry that giving choices leads a child to expect them all the time and means they will never do as they’re told, which sometimes – actually a lot of the time – they just have to. But others assert that the more children feel respected, and the less they get bossed around, the more likely they will be to comply when we let them know they really need to. Giving choices doesn’t mean complete anarchy. There are still limits and boundaries. You’ll notice the examples I gave are all of giving very limited choices. But there is still a choice, and children appreciate this.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“,
“It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life. There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.”
Another great benefit, aside from gaining cooperation, is that choices make children feel respected – they feel that their wishes have been consulted, that they are part of the decision making process, that their feelings are important, and likewise that they are an important and respected member of the family. All good things for a connected relationship and for a child’s self esteem.