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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Power Play


As parents it's obvious we are in charge of our children. Of course right? Yet if you examine the parent child relationship closely, or if you've ever try to quiet a talkative toddler in church, you understand in reality our position of authority is in theory only.


Sure, we establish ground rules, bed times, and provide homework supervision but have you ever noticed that while you're the one making the rules it is your child who is choosing whether or not to keep them?


For example in our home, I am in charge of buying and preparing the food and (for the most part) I choose healthy meals. I have also established a dinnertime for my family and I gather them around the table daily for a nutritious meal. But in all reality, I cannot make my children eat. I cannot open their mouth, put the spoon in, chew it up and make them swallow. I can't. When it comes down to healthy eating I can control what we eat but my children choose how much of it they intake.


It can be very frustrating. All those lengths I go to to buy, plan and prepare food to help them grow strong and yet ultimately it is my children, not me, who is in charge of eating healthy.

This is the same with almost everything in the parenthood. We can't make a kid eat, read, fall asleep or 'go' on the potty. You can't make them try harder, do better or move faster. You can't. Don't believe me? Remember the last time you put a fussy baby to sleep? You can rock them, sing to them, feed them or take them for a long drive in a warm car but they and only they choose when to fall asleep.


This is an important key to parenting. If we understand how this unique relationship between adult and child works it can help us to be more successful parents. There is no trick to getting your kids to be compliant; it's an understanding of how to better engage them through relevant parenting techniques.


Parents would do well to think of themselves as designers in their child's world. Understanding that I cannot control what they eat doesn't stop me from making healthy choices available to them. If I don't want my kids to eat junk food, then I can make sure it's not in our pantry. Likewise, if I want my kids to love reading I can take them to the library. If it's my desire to see my kids excel in school I can be encouraging at home and helpful with homework. If I want my children to learn manners then I need to make sure our home is a place where respect is practiced. If I want my kids to be good sleepers I establish a bedtime routine.


These are the things I can control and I must pursue them with vigor. Parents should avoid making rules that they cannot enforce. Parents who demand thirty minutes of piano practice a day are setting themselves up for a battle as they cannot make their child's fingers move across the keyboard and learn notes. A rule you cannot technically enforce is like throwing down an unnecessary gauntlet as now you are forced to find a way to enforce an unenforceable rule.


Enter trickery and bribery. Parents say, "If you practice for 30 minutes now, I'll cut your time in half tomorrow?" or "If you leave the park now we will stop for ice cream."


Be very careful with these good behavior promises as they invite a subtle and dangerous shift in the parent/child relationship. When moms and dads bribe children to behave or follow a rule they give away any semblance of their parent power. Now the rule or expectation hinges upon your child's likelihood to comply. And if they play the piano for ice cream today but not tomorrow will you up the ante? Will you offer a new video game or a new phone? And how long before it becomes obvious to your child that you're willing to 'pay' them for what they should be doing anyway?


I'm not saying you can't have expectations for your child. You can. You can expect them to read, be courteous and keep their room clean if you choose. But you must understand you cannot make them. And this is where discipline enters the dynamic. When your child refuses to follow the rules you've established you now exert your authority and serve consequences. You may not be able to make them clean their room but you can be sure they don't play video games until the job is done. You can't force them to eat carrots at dinner but you can withhold a snack before bed.


Remember, it's not bad for you to want things for your child. As parents I believe we must hold our children to high expectations. But we must remember the choice is up to them. Our job is to create an environment that invites and nurtures success. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so! That's why!

(This article appears in The Daily Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series.)


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