Steve and I consider ourselves “freethinkers”. We are raising our family in a secular household, and that means that we value logic and reason when it comes to our decision making and interactions with our kids. While in many aspects of our lives, this works beautifully, in some it really does not. To us, it only seemed right that when we have a disagreement with our kids, we use logic and reason to find a solution. Sometimes that means the kids getting what they want, and many times it doesn’t. Unfortunately, there are many situations where no matter what happens, our best attempts at logic and reason are completely steamrolled. Picture this scenario for a moment:
You’ve just spent a long, awesome day at the water park with your kids. You had lunch, ice cold lemonade and you spent hours jumping through fountains and swimming in the wave pool, and now everyone is exhausted and ready to head home. So you load up the car and you’re off. You and your partner both heave a simultaneous sigh of relief and satisfaction. Relief because you’re totally ready to go home and relax, and satisfaction because you were a pretty damn good parent today. You spent a ton of money on admission and food and ride tickets, and instead of just sitting in a chair and making sure your kids don’t drown; you actively engaged and played with them all day. Everyone had a wonderful time, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. As you push the button to turn on the radio, one of your little ones speaks up and asks to stop for ice cream on the way home.
You roll your eyes – Is this kid serious? All day at the water park with all kinds of fun and treats and they want ice cream?! WHATEVER, dude. NOT GONNA HAPPEN. So you tell them no. Then they ask why, and you politely tell them that they had plenty of treats at the park today. More protests. Again, you are polite and tell them that you spent a lot of money today and don’t want to spend more on ice cream, and for good measure you add that everyone is tired and ready to go home. The protests get worse and louder. Ugh. At this point you are likely ready to shed this polite business and tell them off. I mean honestly, what kind of selfish kid spends the entire day at a water park and throws a complete fit when they can’t get ice cream on the way home? HOW IRRATIONAL!
At this point you could go into further explanations and remind them of all the fun they had today, and how it’s a little unfair and selfish for them to be asking for ice cream after all that (which, honestly, is a completely reasonable and sound argument. Common sense, much?). This makes the situation worse. Now, what? Do you tell them to deal with it and let them have a fit, hoping they calm down eventually and let it go? Stop and get them ice cream to avoid a headache for everyone involved? It feels like a lose-lose.
I recently read a few books that encouraged another approach, and after trying it out for several weeks now, I have to say it has worked better than any other strategy we’ve ever tried. Here’s the secret: Ditch the logic and reason. It may go against everything you’ve been trying to teach thus far, but just TRY IT.
Here’s the thing. Kids just want to be heard. They want to feel like their wants, feelings and opinions matter. Who could blame them? Isn’t that what everybody wants? Unfortunately, their communication skills aren’t developed enough for them to tell us this outright. They have to resort to other tactics, including yelling, crying, tantrums or straight up defiance. This can be infuriating, especially in the previous situation where you really put your all into giving this kid a great day. But young kids don’t understand that. They can’t objectively assess a situation and determine the most logical or equitable approach and react accordingly. Their emotions are still the primary drive behind their behavior, and when you consistently tell them why their complaining is so irrational, they can’t help but feel like you really don’t care about what they want or how they feel.
If you put yourself in the same situation, you may be able to sympathize. If you were feeling down, maybe you had a bad day, your boss yelled at you, or you got into an argument with your sibling, and you look to your spouse or your best friend for comfort. What if when you told them why you’re upset, they got irritated with you? Told you that they couldn’t believe you were complaining about something so ridiculous when you have such a great life. People out there don’t even have jobs, and you’re complaining because your boss yelled at you? Get over yourself. People have real problems and you are being so selfish coming to me with that! I’m here to spend time with you and have fun, and you just want to whine about your day? UGH.
How would that make you feel? Probably pretty crappy. What really would have made you feel better was “Ugh, that sounds awful. I’m sorry that happened to you! If I were you I would be upset, too. How about we go get a cup of coffee and talk about what an ass your boss is?” That would probably make you feel a lot better than the first approach. Essentially I am proposing you use that same technique when it comes to your kids. Show them that you care about their feelings, no matter how trivial or ridiculous they may seem. Believe it or not, you can make them feel better without even giving in to what they want. By simply acknowledging and validating their feelings, they will feel like you just “get it.” You understand them, and they are much less likely to continue fighting so hard.
It sounds too simple. Maybe your kid is more strong-willed than mine, and you think it will never work on them…maybe. But I am swearing by it, and it’s worth a shot. I’ve read three books in the last year confirming this as a viable strategy, and I have to agree.
For example: Danny loves playing video games. He gets an allotted “screen time” each day, and when that time is up, it’s up. We’ve had some pretty big confrontations when it’s time to get off the game. Recently, I have tried acknowledging his feelings about wanting to keep playing, and it’s worked pretty well.
Me: It’s time to get off, bud, let’s finish up this level.
Danny: No! I don’t want to get off, I want to keep playing.
Me: I know, but time’s up, and you’ve had your warnings. Now it’s time to get off.
Danny: NO! (Starts to cry) I WANT TO KEEP PLAYING! JUST LET ME!
Me: I know you don’t want to get off. You LOVE playing video games, especially this one. It’s your favorite! You want to keep playing because it’s super-duper fun!
Danny: Stops crying and starts staring at me. (This is how you know it’s working! He is feeling less emotionally overwhelmed and more intrigued because he thinks I may actually understand what he is feeling, instead of writing him off)
Me: I bet when you’re a grown up you will play video games ALL DAY LONG! You might even stay up all night and play Mario because it’s your favorite game and you love it! You HATE having to stop playing because it’s so much fun, and you think it’s not fair!
Danny: Yeah…it’s not fair. Sniff.
Me: Did you know that before I had you, your dad and I used to stay up all night and play video games? We loved all kinds and we played SO much. It was our favorite thing to do together. We still love them! Video games are the BEST!
Danny: (Gets up from game and starts walking with me) Like what games did you guys play?
SUCCESS! I didn’t even need to let him continue to play, but just acknowledging his feelings and telling him I understand how much it sucks to stop playing games, he immediately changed his attitude and became cooperative.
The boys often argue over toys. One of them wants some stupid toy that no one’s picked up in months, and then the other wants it and they go insane. Yanking and grabbing it back and forth and shouting at each other. Yikes. Typically I would side with whoever had it first and give the toy to them, obviously causing chaos for the other one, who thought that I was just being totally unfair, in this case, Ash.
Ashton: (Runs over to me, bawling, after a huge shouting match and pushing with his brother) MOMMY! I WANTED THAT TOY. HE TOOK IT FROM ME BUT I WANTED IT!
Me: Well, didn’t Danny have it first?
Ashton: Yes…BUT I WANT IT (wails louder)..IT’S MINEEEEEE!
Me: Oh, no! You both want the same toy, but Danny got it first and now you don’t get to play with it! I’m sorry, bud! You’re crying; you must be very sad right now!
Ashton: I’M SAD BECAUSE DANNY WON’T GIVE ME THAT TOY. WAHHHHHHH.
Me: I can see that. It’s no fun when you want a toy and someone takes it. And Danny took it and that made you MAD, MAD, MAD! You are mad at Danny for taking your toy and you want it back!
Ashton: Yeah…(starts to wipe tears)
Me: You really like that toy! I saw you playing with it earlier. Toys are so fun and it’s so hard when you really want to play with it and someone else does. I would be sad, too! I’m so sorry! (Hugs) I will set a timer for five minutes, and when that time is up then it’s your turn to have the toy. While we wait, why don’t we play a board game or build with Legos?
I have more examples and different situations where it’s worked, but I think you get the idea. Kids have emotions just like adults do, and even the most trivial or silly ones need to be validated so they feel like they matter. Kids who feel like their parents understand them and are respectful toward their feelings form deeper connections, and thus are much more willing to cooperate, even if it means sacrificing something they really want. If your kid is super oppositional and defiant, they very likely are feeling a disconnect with you and need to feel like you’re there for them. Spend some one-on-one time with them each day, reassure them that you understand their feelings and sympathize, and you will likely see a huge improvement in your interactions with them.