How many times have you experienced this with your child?
It’s twenty minutes until your child’s bedtime and they’re playing a video game.
You say, “Honey, it’s time to get ready for bed. Can you finish up and go brush your teeth?”
He barely looks up from what he’s doing. In fact, he doesn’t seem to hear you at all. But you’re crystal clear and standing right in front of him.
“Did you hear me?”
He nods or grunts and you assume he understands and will comply.
Ten minutes later you check on him and he hasn’t budged. He’s still playing his game.
In the past, you may have lectured him on the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. You may have rationalized why lack of sleep leads to him feeling groggy in the morning and then doing poorly at school. You may have asked nicely, been patient and understanding.
But now, you’re angry and your patience has hit the wall.
You do what seems to work most of the time to get his attention: You yell and threaten.
“That’s it, if you put that down RIGHT NOW and get ready for bed, there will be no video games or a week!”
He objects. “But mom, why can’t I stay up a little longer? Why do I have to go to bed now?”
“Because I said so!”
You really don’t like yelling and screaming at your kids. You don’t like to threaten them with punishments, either.
It doesn’t feel good to you and it certainly doesn’t feel good to your kids.
So what is a parent to do? Especially when kids try to argue their way out or stall when we’re asking them to get their shoes on and get out the door, finish their homework, eat their dinner, or do the myriad of things that children must do in order to be healthy and happy?
We threaten because we need them to listen. We threaten because that’s what OUR parents did.
We have a myriad of responsibilities and not enough time in the day, and we really need our kids to cooperate. Not argue. Not stall. Not bargain with us.
But as I’ll explain, yelling and threatening may occasionally get you what you want—a child who does what he’s told, when he’s told to do it.
But it can also have serious, long-term consequences for your child.
Here’s a thought experiment:
Imagine if your partner came in the room while you were on the phone with your friend and insisted, “You need to get off the phone right now and go take the dishes out of the dishwasher. If I have to tell you again, I’m going to take your cell phone away for a week!”
You’d think your partner had lost their mind! That they were acting like a bully and a jerk!
And if you asked why, or objected in any way, you’d hear, “Because I said so!”
What if this happened frequently? Every day? What if it went on for years?
Eventually, wouldn’t you feel any combination of powerless and unimportant?
This is kind of what’s happening with your child.
That’s because the most common question children ask themselves all day long is “why?”. Why is mommy and daddy unhappy with me? Why can’t I do what I want to do? Why is she yelling at me?
The answers they come up with are:
What I want doesn’t matter.
I’m not important.
Other people know what’s best for me.
Why would he conclude these things about himself?
Because when he was growing up, the most important people in his life did things and said things to him that led him to think this was the case.
Children who feel powerless grow up to be adults who feel powerless.
Adults who feel powerless think they can’t change their circumstances. They resign themselves to situations that don’t serve their best interests because they think that’s just how things are and always will be.
And what happens when you feel powerless as a parent? When your child doesn’t listen and jump-to right away, you get angry, and you say things like, “Do it because I said so!”
You instill the negative belief of powerlessness because you grew up feeling powerless, too.
And that creates a cycle of dysfunction generation to generation.
How do you break that cycle?
Now imagine that earlier scenario with your child, but instead of threatening to take the video game away for a week, you said something like…
“I know that you’re having fun playing that game and you don’t want to stop in order to brush your teeth and get ready for bed. What if we have a silly walk contest to the bathroom? Or see who can get there faster walking on all fours and backwards?”
When our kids were growing up we used to do this all the time—think of fun ways to get them moving from the living room and into the bath, or from the playground into the car—without threats of punishment.
And it worked!
The trick is to make your request into a game or something fun, and to make it a choice.
When you do that, you’re creating pleasant memories for your kids.
They’ll remember that mom and dad were engaging and warm. They’ll remember that they were empowered to make choices, not coerced into things they didn’t want to do. (Even if those choices were between silly-walking to the bath or skipping to the bath.)
Instead of being resentful and feeling controlled, they’ll believe that what they want matters. They’ll feel important and powerful, not powerless.
Which, incidentally, is an antidote to the most destructive, negative self-beliefs I see adults struggling with: I’m not important. What I want doesn’t matter. I’m powerless in life.
So while threatening your kids to get them to comply may work today, what are the long-term consequences of that parenting strategy?
Wouldn’t enticing your kids to comply with fun choices and creative games be the much better choice, especially knowing that it can lead them to more positive self-beliefs for life?
If you validate your child’s feelings, make what you want them to do enticing, use humor and give choices, you still get them to do what you want WHILE creating positive beliefs instead of negative ones.
When a child feels this good about himself, he naturally wants to please his parents—and he grows up learning how to please himself.
At first the types of techniques I wrote about in this article may feel completely foreign to you. Maybe your parents told you what to do and your choices and your desires did not matter. You were never enticed to do your homework, brush your teeth or clean up your room. You just “did what you were told.”
If this is the case, think about how those experiences have impacted how you’ve felt about yourself as an adult.
Do you sometimes think that what you want doesn’t matter as much as what other people want? Do you question whether or not you’re really important or if you are worthy of consideration? Do you sometimes feel powerless in your life?
These are all negative self-beliefs that likely originated in your childhood, based on what you saw and heard growing up.
Look, I get it. None of us want to “mess up” our kids, and all of us want our kids to grow up with pleasant memories of their childhood. Of course we do! But we may not have the knowledge or skills to make those changes.
That’s why I’ve partnered with Flourish, so I can extend my advice and guidance to as many parents as possible.
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