Lately, I’ve been noticing my four year old has been threatening me. Not with violence, but with arbitrary consequence. In the car today I heard, “Mom, if you don’t give me the iPad right now, I’m going to rip my dress.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the absurdity of tearing her dress so I would hand over the iPad. Indeed, I could see the logical gears turning in her head. She wanted to play with it, and I had refused (were my reasons for refusing justified and articulated properly, or just a knee-jerk imposition?), so she was employing a bargaining tactic she thought might motivate me to change my behaviour.
It’s not bargaining or negotiation that there is problem with; after all, it is valuable for us to learn how to productively further our cause or advocate for something. However, threatening to destroy or withhold something if someone doesn’t comply with your demand is coercive, and neither productive nor rational.
Yes, I have to take full responsibility for this behavior.
“If you don’t brush your teeth, we can’t read a bed time story.”
“If you don’t come with me right away, you will have a time-out.”
Really, it’s painful to think of myself saying these kinds of things on the regular.
Threats are fear-based, they don’t allude to (especially not to a young child), a raison d’être, nor do they teach self-motivation. Employing fear as a regulating tactic is a profound act of desperation on the part of parents whom are themselves lacking in the ability to self-regulate.
“Do you feel like that’s just the way it is? If your kids don’t do what you say and you’ve asked nicely more than once and they continue to “push your buttons” and “test your patience”, do you feel justified in your yelling? Or threatening? Your counting down? Your infliction of pain on their bodies (aka “spanking”)? Or do you sense there’s another way? ”
-Jennifer Lehr of Good Job and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say or Do
The first step in teaching kids to be effective, rational communicators involves first allowing them the opportunity by being rational and open ourselves. My reasons for withholding the iPad in the earlier situation had something to do with my thinking that she spends a lot of time on it and should find something more creative to do. Yet, I enjoy spending time on MY devices when and how I please, and if my partner were to nonchalantly decide I couldn’t have them, and that was that, I would probably feel quite outraged. Even if he had a valid concern, would suddenly withholding them or criticizing me be positively motivating, or the best way to approach the situation? Surely, if I could not convince him to give back my phone, I might try threatening to take something of his away to see how it feels. Aha!
So really, she was employing the only effective tactic she saw available for her in order to advocate for what she wants. And, if I continued to resist her protests in the same manner, she likely would have become emotional, which could have triggered further breakdown in our communication, all over my own discomfort, lack of patience and desire to control:
“In a culture that normalizes power-over and control of others, especially children, how a child communicates and expresses herself can become a battleground… Even when we accept the need for the expression of emotions, we may want to limit its length. At some point we think the child should feel better or that the expression is no longer authentic. I have often heard adults tell a child who has cried for a period of time, “Okay, you’ve cried enough; it’s time to stop.” This is another form of trivialization. The root of trivialization is anger: we are angry that the child is burdening us with her emotional expression “for no reason at all.” Notice that all of these reactions are based on the feelings that are triggered in the adult by the child’s emotional expression. We feel sad, uncomfortable, or angry, and our response to those feelings is a desire to control the emotions of the child so that we ourselves can be more comfortable. In fact, we make the child responsible for our own emotions.”
-Teresa Brett, author of Parenting For Social Change
As parents, we are often so focused on the behavior that results from these power struggles that we neglect to first reconsider our initial request and approach. Rarely is behaviour rooted in a desire to “defy”, but rather a result of un-met needs.
Next time you are challenged, ask yourself:
- Is my request reasonable?
- Do I model the behavior myself?
- Is (s)he tired? Hungry?
- Am I pre-occupied or distracted?
- Am I providing stimulating ways to engage in the behavior I am requesting?
- How can I augment my approach without resorting to threats?
What are some ways you have been challenged in self-regulating for your kids? Feel free to share your experience!