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Tell, Don't Ask!

Submitted by Heather on Sun, 09/24/2017 - 10:40

-Reflections on how we approach our children when it’s time to go.

We want our children to have choices, to feel they have some say in what is going on.  

Sometimes, this can cause us well-intentioned parents to make everything their choice. The word and questioning inflection “okay?” becomes a tick that pops up after every statement we make to our child.  Inadvertently, what can result is children honestly answering our questions with resistance.

It is natural for children to not want to do some of the things that are staple routines in the day, and necessities. Most children, given the choice, would not want to go to bed or leave the party or activity they are happily engaged in. This makes sense, but it puts us in a very difficult position, since we just asked for their approval and now we either begin pleading with our children, bribing them, or having to switch quickly into the mode of parent enforcing an expectation, causing understandable confusion and sometimes upset. Seeming to ask when we are really telling is a bait and switch.

Imagine you are out with a friend and this person says, “Do you want to go now?” and you respond honestly saying, “Not yet, I’m having a wonderful time.” Then your friend quickly restates and says, “Well I have to go right now so come on.” How confusing is it? Quickly running through your mind is frustration and the question ‘Why did you ask me in the first place if you needed to go?’

There are times when choices are possible, and then there are times when it’s time to go somewhere or do the next thing in our schedule. As with any transition, it is helpful to give your child some notice first such as “We need to leave in 2 minutes.” Then when the time comes, and it’s not a choice, we can avoid confusion when we start with a statement, with a gentle and upbeat tone, starting with “It’s time”, such as, “It’s time to go, now” or, “It’s time to get ready for bed, now” or “It’s time to wash your hands.” … Tone is the key in communicating with connection and continued respect for your child.

When children are given enough choice, power and independence in their activities throughout the day, they will be okay with certain expectations for cooperation to maintain the order and routine of the day—which is an important part of their life, helping to regulate and calm them overall.  When I say they will be okay with it, I don’t mean they won’t sometimes resist what they don’t want to do. What I do mean is that if your requests are reasonable for maintaining the general consistency of your routine or your and your child’s needs, and if you are equally considerate with your child needs and wants at other times, then these expectations are not harmful in any way and in fact, are healthy. Your child may need some empathy or listening time if they are upset, but kindly holding the expectation is a good thing for the family and for them.

A reflection that helps me to gain inner clarity in reflecting on these confusing situations, is asking myself the following questions. Did my parents expect this of me? And did that feel reasonable? Unless there were some other specific dynamics around these expectations, typically we aren’t feeling like our parents shouldn’t have had a bedtime expectation, or that they should have always let us stay at our friend’s house until we were ready to come home or that they should have never expected us to take a bath, or help set the dinner table. Typically, the things we were upset about and continue to be upset about have more to do with respecting our rights or boundaries or listening to and honoring our needs or talking to us in respectful ways. As we grow, we grow to understand why helping as a member of the family community is important and why bedtime made sense even though we didn’t like going to bed.

I feel it is a useful exercise to think about the difference between what felt unacceptable and what felt like it wasn’t fun but also that it was reasonable. And I also think that as our children grow the language skills, they can make this distinction even as children. Understanding that they simply don’t want to do some things even while they still know these things are important to do.

Before asking your child a question or tacking an “okay?” on to a request, consider what you think your child will say. If you are in a situation where you need to go somewhere, where the place you are at is closing, or simply where it is time for the next routine of the day, be it a meal, a nap, or a bath, it is okay and important to set a limit and move forward with a routine expectation.

How we move forward makes all the difference.

Are we moving forward with compassion, or are we moving forward with firm expectations and disregarding how our child is feeling?  In some ways, it seems like there are only two options for parenting, you either let your child lead you or you do all the leading. It can be hard to imagine anything different than these two options.  Many parents have had authoritarian models in their own childhood and eventually they understood as a parent it’s harmful to dictate rules to children and rely on a punishment model. In avoiding that approach, it is easy to fall into a trap of let their child decide everything (or almost everything) and feel at a loss as to how to proceed other than let their child lead.  

However, we can be respectful, caring authoritative parents with great compassion for our children’s upsets, when they arise. This is a much more helpful stance to start from. The limits do not need to disappear for compassionate understanding to be the core of what our child experiences.

This is where the ever-valuable stay listening (as coined by Hand in Hand Parenting) or active listening (as taught by Carl Rogers and as adopted by Parent Effectiveness Training) come into play as useful tools. 

I’ll give an example that is common to many parents who are trying to leave a party or a public space at the end of an event. Children often don’t want to leave at the end of a fun time. Parents often ask the children “Are you ready to leave?” or “It’s time to go, okay?” Children sometimes then resist, say no, and keep doing what it is they are engaged in.

So back to the statement at the beginning of this article, after setting an expectation, we can start out with, “It’s time to go now,” In a gentle and upbeat tone. If your child starts to cry, you can take some time to sit with them and listen to how they are feeling with love. You might even say, “You are really sad, you would like to stay right now.” Echoing these emotions can coexist with holding the limit. You are providing some connecting validation for the big feelings that are bubbling up, and taking the few minutes that this entails can make all the difference for your child.