Force? Or Firmness?What's a Parent to Do?

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Force? Or Firmness?

What's a Parent to Do?

I wish I had a dollar (or possibly two...) for every time I've been in a public place and watched a parent try to coax, argue, and persuade a child to do something. "Please?" the parent says, with a smile that is already beginning to fray around the edges. Or "now!" through clenched teeth. And most of the time, the child in question looks dismissively at the parents, or grins, and continues to do whatever she was doing before.

These are the parents who sit in my office and tell me that their child "won't listen." But I'm pretty sure there is nothing at all wrong with the child's hearing. That child just sees no reason to comply with whatever his exasperated parent is requesting.

Not long ago, a loving, committed and thoroughly frustrated mom sat on my couch, telling me about an incident she'd experienced with her three-year-old daughter. When I gently suggested that she tell her child what needed to happen and then follow through by picking her up and gently moving her where she needed to go, the mother looked genuinely horrified. "I grew up with parents who yelled and spanked and made me do things," she told me. "And I swore I would never force my child to do things. But she just won't listen to me." Mom sighed. "I give her choices, just like the parenting books say. She just won't do any of the choices."

Now, I've heard this before. And while I empathize with this mom's feelings, niceness without backbone just isn't an effective parenting strategy. So I asked this mom a question. "If your daughter ran out into the street," I said, "would you stand on the sidewalk and ask her nicely to run back to you? Or would you immediately run out, pick her up, and take her to where she could play safely?"

"I'd go get her, of course," Mom said, looking a bit mystified.

"But you're forcing her," I observed. And Mom was stumped.

I think where so many parents get stuck is in expecting that if they ask something of their child nicely, that child will cheerfully comply. If you haven't already figured it out, folks, parenting doesn't always work that way. "Nice" doesn't work unless it's balanced with firmness. You can and should be kind and respectful when talking to your children, but you have to grow a parental spine: effective parenting requires firmness and follow through.

Why is this so hard for parents? Why do so many well-meaning dads and moms fall victim to what I call "Wimpy Parent Syndrome"? I believe it's because parents need their children to like them. Not love them--like them. And sometimes, if you're doing your job as a parent well, your children just won't be happy. They'll cry when you say no because they really wanted that toy or cookie. They'll cry when you say it's bedtime because they really want to watch another video. They'll get angry when you say no because they're young and unskilled, and they think they know what they need. 

But you're the parent. It's your job to know what your child needs and unfortunately, it's your job to set limits, teach skills, and then follow through when necessary--even when your child is unhappy with your decisions and, at least momentarily, unhappy with you. Being firm and following through when necessary isn't mean, nor is it force.

Think for a moment. Do you know what the speed limit is on your local interstate? Do you know what the consequence is if you break it and get caught? Have you ever broken it anyway? (Be honest, now...) Would you pay any attention at all to the speed limit if you knew the nice officer didn't want you to cry and would never give you a ticket? Sometimes, we pay the ticket and still break the speed limit. Why should we think our children are any different?

Connection and kindness are essential. But without firmness, not much will get done. If you're a parent, there will be days when your kids won't like you much. You'd better learn to deal with it: otherwise, neither you nor they will be happy and healthy in the long run.

| Posted by cheryl | Thursday, June 7, 2012|


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