When we ask a child to do something, and they say no (or ignore us), the option of explaining why we’re asking them to do it, and inviting discussion, is so attractive. It’s what most parenting books suggest, after all. And research shows that explaining and discussing ARE useful tools for helping to get buy-in from children: when they’re adolescents.
In early childhood, explaining and convincing are not only ineffective (because young children’s brains are still immature), they also have significant negative side effects. When little Isaiah doesn’t want to put his toys away, or get his jacket on, or get ready for bed,, and we start explaining and discussing, several things are happening:
We Are Addressing Emotion with Logic
Trying to change emotion with logic is rarely effective, even in cases where a person’s brain is fully developed! If we want to change the way a child feels, we need to generate positive feelings in our children. And (news flash!) that’s not by explaining and discussing. It’s by turning things into a game, by singing a little song, by using humor. I talk about using these elements of S.M.I.L.E. to help children do what we’ve asked in this post here. But there are even more reasons not to get trapped in the discussion trap:
We Are Teaching Our Children to Argue with Us
Remember, children learn through imitation. This means that engaging in discussion to try and change his mind actively cultivates the child’s desire and ability to explain to us in return why he shouldn’t have to do something. Even though we’ve asked. Susan Stiffelman, author of the great book Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected, refers to this type of exchange as “The Two Lawyers.” She says, “This is where power struggles take place, with each side debating the merits of its position, and the most committed–or least exhausted–prevailing.” (p. 9) This technique does little except give children practice saying no.
We Are Promoting Feelings of DISconnection
When we engage in discussion with children about why they should change their minds and do what we ask, this doesn’t promote feelings of closeness. Rather, it shines the spotlight on areas where we disagree, drawing them out, dwelling upon them, amplifying them. As dueling lawyers we’re not on the same team, we’re on opposite teams. Our goal as parents is to create mutually responsive relationships with our children, where we are on the same team as often as possible. Allowing children to be disappointed, then supporting them to move on, can put parents and children on the same team for much more of the time.
We’re Being Passive-Aggressive
As toddlers grow into preschoolers and become more verbal, many parents feel increasingly uncomfortable insisting that their children do what they’ve asked if they don’t want to. These parents don’t want to change their mind whenever their child gets upset, but they also don’t want to be a dictator, so they start engaging in longer and longer discussions, trying to get their children to agree with what they’ve asked.
If that feels similar to what you’re experiencing, I’d like to suggest an alternate way of looking at the situation. Although our ongoing discussions stem from a desire to be kind, if we refuse to move on until children give up their feelings on the issue, we’re not really being kind. Arguable, we’re actually being more controlling, because not only do they have to do what we want, but they can’t even feel they way they want about it, either! I’m not suggesting that we ignore our children’s feelings; quite the contrary. I’m simply suggesting that explaining and convincing are not the best ways to help preschoolers manage their feelings. Connecting through singing, movement, imagination, love, and exaggeration (S.M.I.L.E.) are much more effective.
And when S.M.I.L.E. doesn’t work? When do we drop our requests? When do we insist? When are bribes and punishments appropriate? I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you with a bit of cliffhanger; this is long enough for a blog post. If you don’t want to wait, read my book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love.