Stop Giving Ultimatums and Start Giving Choices
One of the quickest ways to get into an infuriating power struggle with your child is to give them an ultimatum. “Clean your room or you’re not playing outside.” “Finish your vegetables or you won’t get desert.” “Stop being loud or you’re going to bed early.” These are all examples of ultimatums. While some of these might be fair natural consequences presenting them in ultimatum form will always result badly.
Children crave autonomy and you can see this starting at an extremely young age. When your two year old says, “Let me do it” or when your four year old says, “Mom, I don’t need your help this time.” They want to do things for themselves and they want to make their own choices. Does this mean that they will always choose what is best for them? Absolutely not. They still function solely on how they feel, what they like, and what they want, which is perfectly normal for small children. Children don’t start incorporating logic into their decision until around age 7 or 8.1 This is why they need us to guide them. Guide being the key word here. When you try to impose your will on your child you will inevitably end up with a war on your hands. Trust me, your tiny natural individualist is ready for the fight.
So what do you do?
First you must change your mindset. You must stop expecting your child to do what you tell them to do the second you tell them to do it. They are not computers, nor are they robots. Think of the last time your spouse asked you to do something. Did you immediately drop what you were doing to do it? Maybe if it was something really pressing, right? But more than likely if you asked your husband to take out the trash, it was still in the bin an hour later. I’m pretty sure my husband has mentioned our bathroom counter more than once this week. Sorry babe, I promise I’ll get to it. My point is that our children are just like us; they are human. They might need to be reminded a couple of times about a task. Or maybe they feel that they have better things to do that rank higher on their priority list than your request. That’s what’s going on with the current bathroom situation. I’m sorry but I’d rather be writing. The bottom line is that we need to stop holding our children to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Changing your mindset sets you up to calmly address any disputes you and your children have regarding what needs to be done.
The next thing you need to do is make your case. Explain to your child why you want them to do something. Communication is key. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “I want you to eat your vegetables because they are good for you and I want you to be strong” and viola my son is eating his broccoli. If that is all it takes to avoid an argument, do it. Even though I have explained the importance of vegetables to my son nearly everyday since before he could talk, I make my case anytime there is a problem simply because sometimes that’s all it takes. Make sure you cover all your bases.
Next you want to consider all of your options for dealing with the situation. Take your time so that you can think of all of your options. Maybe you’re overreacting. Yes, it’s true parents have been known to overreact from time to time. Maybe you’re not overreacting but you feel yourself starting to engage in a power struggle. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re engaging in a power struggle but you just don’t know what to do moving forward because you know that force and manipulation is off the table. Remember that you don’t need to have an instantaneous answer. That’s what the critical thinking exercise is for and can be part of the choices that you present to your child.
Finally, present some choices to your child. There is a huge difference in presenting a child with choices and giving them an ultimatum. It’s all in how you present it: “I understand that you would rather play cars than do your writing assignment. I would rather read instead of workout sometimes but I have to workout so that I can stay healthy. Here are your choices: You can do your writing assignment and then play cars for the rest of the day. You can take some time to think about why you don’t want to do your writing assignment. Or we can try and figure it out together by doing our question writing exercise. It’s your choice, what would you like to do?” Obviously, this is not done with yelling, in a negative tone, or with a harsh eye. You must let them make their choice. You cannot get angry or frustrated with whatever choice they make. This is not a dictatorship. That is why you give them reasonable choices and then you let them choose. You want to work with them towards the goal, not fight them there.
If you noticed, we started with mindset because you don’t want to be manipulative here, or ever. Once your mind is calm, you can perceive their refusal to do something as a natural human trait, instead of as a personal insult. Then you are better able to present their options with an unbiased angle. When you have that biased angle, your child knows. Even if you don’t think they know…they know. Remaining neutral allows your child to choose without trying to rebel against what you want, doing what you want out of fear, or doing what you want out of a deep need to please you. When you take the parents approval or disapproval out of the equation you end up with a child who is actually able to weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. This will ultimately make them more confident in their ability to be independent and lead themselves.
The last thing I’ll note here is that giving an ultimatum is a form of manipulation and ultimately force. It’s not physical force but threatening your husband with alimony if he doesn’t stay with you isn’t exactly the same as having a loving voluntary relationship. If you look at the ultimatums I listed above they boil down to a bunch of threats. That’s not what peaceful parenting is about. Peaceful parenting is about communication, negotiation, love, respect, and (my favorite) personal responsibility. You take away all of those things when you use threats.
1) Bradshaw, John. Bradshaw: On the Family: A New Way of Creating Solid Self-Esteem. Florida: HCI; 1996