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The Power of Choice

Many parents strive for a relationship of give-and-take, cooperation, and harmony with their children. One way to encourage a more cooperative atmosphere is to give choices.

It’s important that the choice is not IF something will be done, it should be WHEN or HOW. It’s not, “Will you put your pants on?” rather “Which pants will you put on, the blue or the black?” or for older children, “We’re going out to dinner at 6, what time will you be home so you can get ready?”.

Many parents don’t like this idea of choices as it gives them less control and predictability. For the same reason, our children don’t like NOT having choices, because they don’t have control or predictability. It’s not a matter of who has power or control, it’s a matter of distributing the control in such a way as to help the child gain experience while getting the work of the family done. Thus, it is important that the choices are acceptable to the parent. Free choice for children to do whatever they want, whenever they want, is not acceptable either. Freedom within limits is healthy and promotes problem solving, decision-making, and responsibility.

Here are some ideas about choosing when something will be done:

Allow them to choose if chores or homework get done immediately after school, before dinner, or right before bed (depending on the task). If it is a job that needs to be done at a certain time (for example, the dog needs to be fed before school), let them choose if they will feed upon getting up, after teeth are brushed, or after breakfast. If the dog follows them around for 30 minutes until he’s fed, the child is experiencing the consequences of not feeding the dog early enough.

Here are some ideas on choosing how something gets done:

Given that you’ve trained them on the task, for example, that the clothes need to go in the bathroom hamper, the books are put away in the book shelf neatly standing up straight, and the toys are put into the toy box neatly enough to put the top on, you agree to when the room will be cleaned up.

The process they use may be to:

  • Pick up all the clothes from floor (from all areas of the room)
  • Put away all the books (from all areas of the room)
  • Put the toys in toy box (from all areas of the room)
OR, they may:
  • Go to one corner of the room, put the toys, books and clothes from that corner away, then move on to next corner.
You may have a preference of your way of getting it done (and of course that is the “right way” – haha). Guess what…they have their “right way” too! As long as it’s getting done by the agreed-upon time, who cares?

Allowing them to select the method and the timing gives them some freedom and control. As well, it gives them the opportunity to learn what is efficient for them and what is not. Insisting on your logic and process takes away the necessary process of thinking it through, a process that develops their problem solving. It also diminishes their power and control by keeping you the one in charge. This will spawn power struggles in other areas. As well, it communicates that they don’t have to be responsible for anything because you will take the responsibility and just tell them what to do. How can they take responsibility if you don’t give it to them?

Try giving your children more and more choices as they grow and you will see more cooperation, greater independence, and competence.

Be the Parent

I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal yesterday titled:
Be The Parent Your Teen Needs. Most parents of teens that I work with say things to me like:

I need my teenager to clean their room.

My teen needs to study for SATs.

My teen thinks I’m an ATM and always needs money!

When we look at it from the perspective of the teen, what do they really need, and are you providing it?

The article talks about intellectual, social, emotional, and physical (brain) development at different specific ages and that as your child grows their needs change. What strikes me most is that teens need firm and friendly training, boundaries (appropriate ones!) , trust, connection with you, and an atmosphere that allows them to make mistakes and to learn from them.

The point is: when teens are receiving support, encouragement, coaching, and some control over their choices, they start cooperating, are motivated, and participate with the family. They are also developing decision-making, problem solving, and relationship skills that will serve them once they leave the nest and last a lifetime.

So if you find yourself over-focusing on a clean room, SATs, or why they keep putting their hand out for money, look at what they are learning and focus more on what they need to learn while they are still under your roof, and, how as parents you can help them learn it.

How are you serving their needs for growth and development?

A link to the article is below:

Lying and Labeling

What do you do when you know  your child did something that you consider wrong?

When we know that our kids did something wrong, it’s better, more respectful and less threatening, to talk to them using a statement and not a question. A question accuses them and sets them up to lie to us.

For example:

1. Instead of asking “did you brush your teeth?” you can say “today we brush our teeth twice”, giving them a second chance to brush. The child knows he didn’t brush and he knows that you know he didn’t brush. This statement prevents labeling him as a liar. Also, we would never ask our boss or friend to open their mouth and let us smell to see if they remembered to brush their teeth, and that is why we shouldn’t do it with our kids. It’s disrespectful and trying to catch them in a lie.

2. Instead of asking the child “did you take this from Johnny’s house?” you can say “This is not ours. Looks like we need to drive to Johnny’s house and return it.” This statement prevents labeling him as a liar or a thief.

There are risks to labeling our children. If one child in the family is known as “the student” and another “the athlete”, they will most likely not try to develop any skills outside of that as that is what they perceive they are good at and nothing else. As well, if one child excels in an area, the siblings will likely choose not to compete in that area because that position is already taken and they don’t see an opportunity of competing for that skill. The risk of labeling your child is that they may end up believing the label and limit their potential to experience and develop themselves in other areas.

Labels that can be harmful or limiting:

The Baby
The boys
The girls
The smart one
The pretty one
The responsible one
A slob

Also, once we’ve dubbed our child “The _______” we cannot think of or operate as if they are anything but that. Our behavior will subconsciously communicate that that is our belief.

Seeing your child as a unique individual and calling them by name is more empowering, and gives them the gift of seeing them for who they are, not who you wish they were (or weren’t).

What labels do you use when describing your kids? What could you use instead?

School’s Out

I think it was the end of 2nd grade, I remember the feeling on the last day of school, a euphoria, school was out!!! What freedom I felt! No more responsibilities, 3 months of lazy days, great weather, fun activities, sleeping a little bit later, getting to play outside, what a great feeling!

That feeling continued each year, regardless of my summer plans, even when I had various summer jobs and in college when I was going home for the summer. I did have responsibilities, but it was different. I didn’t have “the work” hanging over my head. Don’t get me wrong, I liked school, my friends, activities, and even some of the schoolwork, but the feeling of freedom from the school responsibilities was still wonderful.

As a parent of school-aged children, the end of the school year still held that euphoria. Less management of their activities, less structure to our days, more leeway in what we needed to accomplish, and more enjoyment of each other with fun activities.

At least that was the vision. The reality at times was being the referee to sibling squabbles, an urge to be the ultimate planner of everyone’s activities, and resistance from my children to follow the plan that I had made. All of that led to exhaustion.

The solution for me to get more enjoyment out of our summers was to shift from being the Family Brain, to a team leader of sorts. To realize that our family was just that, OURS, not just mine and to make it a smooth running, thriving team, it meant I needed to share some of the responsibility, recognize how capable my children were to solve their own problems (see The Joy of Boredom article for ways to do this), and train and encourage them to manage their own lives. The shift to that new positive family took a long time, however, it was worth every ounce of effort, minute, mile, and dollar. It was an investment in my children to allow them to grow, an investment in myself to know I was being the best parent I could be, and an investment in the future relationships I would have with my husband and children.

So, school’s out, are you looking for a summer of euphoria or are you anxious about extra free time and the difficulties it may cause? Take some time to start your shift to positive parenting that creates a loving family that works, grows, and enjoys together by taking a class. In the meantime, here are some extra tips to help immediately:

Give Your Child Everything He Wants (What!?)

Sometimes our children ask us for things that are unreasonable, inconvenient, against our good judgment, or just not possible. Rather than being annoyed, trying to explain and use logic, or even flat out saying “No”, give your child everything he wants in wishful thinking. This is a very powerful tool that can tremendously decrease tantrums, whining and power struggles.

Here are a few examples:

  1. When your child says “Take the baby back to the hospital” you can say “You wish you were still our only child in the house and we would only play and love you.”
  2. When your child wants a cookie before dinner you can say “I bet you wish you could finish the whole package of cookies right now.” You can also take one cookie, put it in a bag, and write his name on it.
  3. If your child is whining for chocolate milk, you could say “You sound like you wish you had a whole swimming pool of chocolate milk right now.”
  4. When your child wants to play a game and not do homework or chores you can say “Most kids wish they could play all day long and have no homework or chores.”
  5. When you are driving in the car and your child says he is thirsty, you can say  “Wouldn’t it be great if the back of the seat had a faucet that poured cold water out of it.” “What would you want to come out of the faucet, apple juice or milk?” or “Maybe we could have another spout that gave M&Ms.”

Many parents are very skeptical when hearing about this tool. Most of the time it takes them one try to see that it works. Wishful thinking works because it is fun, playful and empathetic (and not sarcastic or mean).

Make sure that you don’t talk after saying this one sentence. Just give your child what he wants in wishful thinking and continue your business, leave the room or just stay quiet.

What does it mean to feel valued?

A number of years ago I went for a checkup with my doctor. She was at a new practice and when I asked her why she switched from the old practice she told me that she hadn’t been happy there for a while. She was having trouble putting her finger on why and had a conversation with her sister to try to talk it through. Her sister asked:

  • whether she was having conflicts with the other doctors, staff or the patients?
  • had the work lost its luster for her?
  • was the job interfering with her family life?
  • The answer to all of those questions was no.

When the sister then asked, “Do you feel respected in the practice?” The doctor replied, “yes”. Then, “Do you feel valued?”. The doctor thought a moment and said, “That’s it! I’m just another good doctor that works here. I am not a part of things, I’m not asked about my opinion of where we are going or what we are doing as a practice. I don’t belong, I just follow instructions and that is not OK with me. I want to be important, I want my opinion to matter, I want to help improve the way we all work together.”

Don’t we all want to make a difference? To belong to the group? To have a say in things, a say that matters? I venture to say that your children (and partners) feel the same. We are social creatures living in a social world. That requires us to set a course, get along, create together, and be important. How are you valuing your family members today?

Here are some suggested ways to value the contributions made by the individuals in your family:

Express your appreciation

for who they are as well as for the things they do to help. Illustrate how it benefits the whole group. “Cleaning up all those toys in the family room made it a lot more comfortable for everyone when we watched the movie last night. Thanks.”

Ask for input and consider everyone’s opinion without judgment.

“So I hear 4 ideas for how to celebrate Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary: Make them a special card, have a party, take them to dinner, make up a play and act it out for them.”

Take turns with chores

or picking out what’s for dinner, or deciding who gets which seat in the car and follow through with the choices. (Adults take a turn too).

Children will be a lot more flexible when they know that they get to make contributions too and that those contributions are valued.



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