Before we get into the many different approaches we might take to curbing one sort of misbehaviour or another, I thought I'd give you one of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given. I learned this little trick from all sorts of places, including brilliant moms, intervention and prevention programs that I've reviewed professionally, how-to books on parenting and so on (too many to link to for this specific point). It's not rocket science, but it's a lesson that I CONSTANTLY have to keep reminding myself about. It seems like every 2 months or so, when I get stuck in some bad place with the boys and I can't seem to get them to change something or other that I'd like them to change, I have to smack myself with this lesson once again. It almost ALWAYS helps me work out something more effective.
Best discipline strategy EVER: ANTICIPATE and structure the child's environment to AVOID the conflict / battle of wills / oppositional behaviour to begin with. That's it. When you start noticing a pattern of "No!"s to the same thing, a pattern of tantrums to the same triggers, a pattern of timing when your child refuses your wishes consistently (overtired? just before or after transitions? etc.), try to anticipate those triggers and change the context so as to avoid the conflict to begin with. I know, it's not as easy as it sounds. Let's think about this more.
First off, after our child has thrown the 10th sweet potato on the floor, lunged at his baby brother's throat yet again, refused to put on her boots AGAIN, blatantly ignored being called to dinner, and so on, we may sometimes forget that we don't have the devil's spawn on our hands; instead we have a very normal child acting perfectly age-appropriately. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that at almost any age under around 6 or so, most often, the battle of wills is not worth fighting. At so many developmental stages in a young child's life -- especially (but not limited to) 8 - 11 months, 18 - 22 months, 2.5 - 3 years and 3.5 to 4 years -- one of the main developmental challenges for your child is to assert her independence and forge a little more autonomy from you. It's their JOB to figure out how far they can push the boundaries, how hard they can push before they get a push back, how absolute the rules really are, and so on. This pushing gives them a sense of power as well as a sense of their role in the family. Being defiant teaches them about their own efficacy in the world, how crucial it is to compromise at times, how often they will hit upon obstacles to their wishes, and if we respond by setting appropriate boundaries at critical times, these oppositional outbursts also provide them with a sense of security: although their world may be frustrating at times, it's also safe, predictable, and mommy WILL prevail and take care of me in the end.
So, once we accept that our kids will and NEED TO defy us at many, many turns, we can move on to what we do about it. And I think one of the best sanity-savers for parents is to minimize the frequency and severity of this defiance in the first place by THINKING AHEAD. We can try to anticipate those times in the day that are most likely to trigger conflicts and try to change things around enough that they simply won't happen. In that way, we avoid the battle of wills. Which means we avoid having to either force our kids to do something they insist they don't want to do or backing down eventually and worrying that we're creating a "spoiled brat" who gets whatever he wants if he wails loud enough.
Of course, this strategy won't work all the time. And even if it DOES work for one thing, because at the root of these conflicts is a desire for power and autonomy, another issue will invariably pop up. But you'll be surprised at how often it actually does work and how pleased you'll be with yourself when you finally are done pleading with the child to JUST. GET. YOUR. SHOES. ON. NOW. (Now you can move on to the hats!) There are so many examples we could talk about here and I'd love to hear from parents who effectively avoid conflicts with their kids. Here are just a few examples, from my own and blog readers' experiences:
- As I've mentioned before, I used to yell almost daily at my kids in the morning to get their shoes on. We'd be late for school every day as a result of this silly battle. It baffled me for a good 2 weeks. I'd say get them on, it's late, they'd say no or lay about basically ignoring me. It was 2 against 1 and guess who was "winning?" So... I made it into a game -- changed the context entirely. They had two types of shoes each and we gave them animal characters (the doggy shoes, the monkey shoes, etc.). Then each morning I would make a big deal about who was going to be the monkey, the doggy, etc. I would close my eyes and tell them as soon as they had their animal shoes on they should make those animal noises and I would guess which boy had what shoes on. Worked like a charm. After 2 weeks, they were bored with the game, but I can now say put the monkey shoes on and there is NO CONFLICT AT ALL about it. (We will not speak of the hats...)
- In the comments of the last post, @Paola mentioned (and @Cloud responded the way that I would have), that her girl refuses to go to bed before her request for water is granted... AFTER it's already bedtime (beforehand, she says she doesn't want any). Pure power issues, as Paola nailed. Of course, after lots of wailing (and a brother to consider), any mother would just finally acquiesce to the demand. Here's a few things that might help to change the context: "Give in" right away, immediately after she asks the first time. Just accept that you will go back in to the room once. That may stop the power struggle right there -- she feels like she's won and you know that you actually have saved yourself 30 min of a harrowing battle. Or, as @Cloud suggested, provide her with a sippy cup of water by her bed. Or give her a choice of water or a story (before she's hit her "real" bedtime) so she feels she's got a little more of you than usual.
- Judy recently emailed us this question: "we haven't been able to come up with a good way to stop him [19 month old] from throwing toys. A behavior we'd like to limit to outdoor play. It seems that when he does get frustrated he'll wind up, hold the toy by his ear, say "no" and proceed to huck it across the room. We've tried ignoring the behavior, telling him he can only throw certain safe balls, saying no etc.... If we try to get eye-level and explain, he'll ignore us and just point at something else across the room- as if to change the subject :)." SO typical of this stage... A couple of ideas of how to change the context: Take away all dangerous toys that can't be thrown -- leave him only with soft, plushy things that won't do damage. Or, while he's in this phase (and it IS only a phase, believe me), play with him mostly in the kitchen or another room that won't be damaged by his throwing. The other part of this is ANTICIPATE: When you see he's about to get frustrated, try removing the toy and giving him another attractive one immediately, one that isn't as frustrating, preferably. But good luck with that... 18 - 21 months is ALL ABOUT FRUSTRATION and much of this is about soldiering on and waiting it out. And maybe drinking some good wine (I shudder when I remember that stage -- it was my hardest with my boys).
Of course, I could go on and on with examples. The last point I wanted to make is that what we're REALLY doing when we use this ANTICIPATE and AVOID strategy is changing OUR behaviour, more than our child's. This is really about changing our own minds about how we perceive a conflict, power struggle, undesirable behaviour. Our tendency is to ascribe harsh intentionality to our kids: "He just wants to get his way." or "She just wants to piss me off." or "He's trying to push my buttons." or "She's testing whether I'll be the one who'll back down." Or some other variant. Although there may be some truth to all of these things, the key here is that kids are doing what they're developmentally supposed to be doing and they're learning a whole lot from the process. OUR challenge is to keep our own sanity, bring up reasonably healthy, peaceful and happy children, and keep them (and those around them) safe. We often can't change THEIR minds in the heat of a battle, but we CAN change our own. For me, it helps enormously to think about these battle of wills as MY OWN failure to be flexible and smart (rather than my children are just little sh&%s).
(By the way, these are not my own original ideas of course. Many of the points I've made are from well-known, fabulous books that I plan to list in a separate post, but they may resonate with many of you out there.)
So, tell me, have any of you come up with ways to avoid particular battles with your children? Are there stories out there about anticipating conflicts that may help out other parents who are reading? What are YOUR most challenging moments with your kids and how do you deal best and worst with them?