Parent: Avi, please do your homework.
Avi: I don’t want to! It’s so dumb!
Parent: Avi, how many times do I have to ask you to do your homework?! You’re gonna fail the fifth grade if you don’t get started! And don’t talk like that – it’s not nice!
Avi: I hate school and I hate this house! (Avi pushes his books across the table)
Parent: (Pulse racing) That’s it, go to your room! You are grounded for the next month!
(Avi goes to his room and parent leaves the house to let off some steam. Once the parent has calmed down an hour later, the parent begins to wonder how he/she got so caught up in the heat of the moment and lost him/herself, throwing out a punishment that was too big for the crime.)
Sound familiar? What happened to that warm, nurturing relationship we were meant to develop with our children? Remember that? The one that helps build their self-esteem and self-confidence? Somehow, the feelings of frustration and anger that build up inside of us when our children don’t listen, cause us to lose our patience and threaten to punish. When we feel unheard, dismissed and disrespected by our children, our good intentions to create that positive relationship gets thrown out the window, and whether it’s homework time, bedtime or cleanup time, we end up feeling like the villain.
Understanding the Mind of the Child
Much like the physical development of a child, the cognitive process, better known as the child’s ability to think, process and make decisions, develops over time. Lawrence Kohlberg, in exploring a child’s capacity for moral reasoning, noted how a child moves from a very simplistic way of thinking, to a more complex one as they approach adulthood. This might explain why the terrible 2’s are hallmarked by frequent tantrums (ever been able to get a 2-year-old to understand why they can’t have another cookie?). Children at this age have little capacity to reason, to understand the parent’s perspective, and appreciate an answer that might be different than their own. In fact, children at the age of 5, 7, 11 and even 15 (surprise, even teenagers!), are still developing this moral compass. This limited capacity to reason, or better described as black and white thinking, causes children to react and respond negatively when things are not to their liking.
Understanding the Parent-Child Dynamic
With the child’s mind still developing, a child can view his parent’s directive in black and white terms. When this happens, a child’s capacity to reason and negotiate the parent’s instruction is limited, and he has little more to offer than his instinctive opinions on the matter, which often sounds threatening. (“I don’t want to [do my homework! It’s so dumb!) Baffled by the child’s chutzpah and total disregard to his instruction, the parent enters the power struggle in full gear, counteracting the threat with magnanimous punishments.
We would like to set limits for our children, who are reactive black and white thinkers. How can we approach our children with composure and dignity? What can we do to minimize the power struggle?
Here are some techniques to try:
* When a child misbehaves, our tendency is to jump right in there and react. Sometimes this is called for (when Yanky is physically attacking Shlomo) and sometimes, it is better to wait it out and approach the child at a quiet moment. When doing so, empower the child to solve the problem on their own. For example, let’s say you come home and find that Sarah, who is old enough to clean up after herself, raided the kitchen and made a huge mess – right after the cleaning lady left of course. Your gut wants to yell: “Sarah, what is this mess?! How come you can’t clean up after yourself?!” Instead, consider calling her over at a quiet moment and say: “I want you to continue to be able to help yourself to snacks after school. When I came home I found a big mess. What could we do differently next time?”