Wednesday, January 2, 2013

We Don't Negotiate with Terrorists...or Toddlers


As a side note, this photo is of Hayes, who is not our child and not a toddler. Negotiating with babies is a whole other animal. But I couldn't resist this adorably sad photo for the post.

Recently Rob and I have had to really crack down on the terrorists--I mean, toddlers--in our house. Like mini-terrorists, they have a clear objective and will do almost anything in their power to get it. In a toddler's arsenal you will find: tears, tantrums, whining, complaining, begging, insisting, and more tears. Then put it all on repeat and crank the volume.

Our kids are generally pretty good about accepting no's. There are a lot of them each day--no cupcakes for breakfast, no staying up past bedtime, no jumping on the couch, no hitting your brother in the face with a wooden block. Every so often, though, we'll hit a snag. Like when my mom invited Lincoln to spend the day at her house. Sawyer, being the older, has had plenty of opportunities to do things alone with Gammy and Turkey. But now, seeing his brother get to go alone, Sawyer can't handle it. Tears, whining, shouting.

As a parent, the temptation is often to stop the demands as quickly as possible. Sadly, this means giving in.  DON'T DO IT! Let me say that again, just in case you missed it.

DON'T DO IT! 

It often looks like this: you do your very best to hold out, whether it's bedtime or some special privilege or that new toy your child simply has to have while you're grocery shopping. Tantrums are embarrassing. They are annoying. They can be angering. They are especially ill-timed when you are in a public place or in front of friends and family. You want it to stop. You don't want a scene. The battle is tiring. So you buy that toy or give in to a few more minutes past bedtime, often with the promise to your child that the next time at the store, there will be no toy. Next bedtime, she won't get to stay up.

Your child only hears this: if I use my arsenal of manipulative weapons, I get my way. 

So that next time you're at the store or hit bedtime or any other thing where your child's desires differ from your own, and you will encounter the same resistance. Only more, because when you say no, your kid doesn't believe you. And they shouldn't--you have pretty much told them crying or whining or asking repeatedly results in you giving way.

Now imagine these same tactics when your child is no longer a baby-faced two- or four-year old. He or she is sixteen, maybe bigger than you, and wants a new car. Or to drive your new car.  The tricks don't look the same, the tantrums are a little more sophisticated, but it's the same principle.  Only worse, because it's been years in the making. A craft honed to perfection. While you are in the rut of being worn down from no to yes.

Discipline is so, so tough. I think it's the worst and most challenging part of parenting. Discipline is also the part you will most regret skipping if you choose to take the easy route. I do think this means that you need to weigh your words and your rules pretty carefully. Try not to give your small kids a room full of potential no's that you have to enforce. Really think about whether or not it matters if you allow your child to choose one snack during a grocery trip. Decide ahead of time so that when you are faced with the situation, you already have an answer. Then hold fast to it no matter how your child reacts.

Choose the battles wisely because your response is vital to your child's development. And if you were planning to say yes, but your child preemptively strikes with whining and stomping and kicking and crying, for the love of all that's holy, say NO. Never send the message that those tactics will work.  Rob and I will often ask our kids to change their tone if they are asking for something like more water with dinner. "I can't understand you when you're whining," I might say or, "Ask cheerfully."

I sometimes feel exhausted at the end of a day, depending on how many of these battles I've navigated. I try to keep in my mind's eye two teenage boys that outweigh me, trying to bully me with more sophisticated whining and demanding. I know I can't fully control how my kids grow up, despite my best efforts. But I hope that the payoff for the non-negotiation now will be easier compliance down the road.

Terrorists or toddlers, the principle is the same: do not give into their demands. 

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