Have you noticed that children seem to always want to push the boundaries? It's almost as though they are wired to poke and prod us to see how much they can get away with.
Power struggles are an inevitable part of parenting, and they start early on. For toddlers, it's wanting to stay up late, sleep in mummy's bed, eat ice-cream for breakfast, have daddy feed them - no mummy... no daddy - or wear zero clothing. Actually for toddlers everything is a power struggle. For bigger kids it's almost always wanting more screen time. Or wanting that treat after you said no. For teenagers? How about even more screen time, extended curfews, wanting to drive a car before they're ready, or drink alcohol before they're ready (or both).
Research tells us that our children need us to set limits, even though they fight against it like crazy. Kids without limits tend to have lousy outcomes throughout their lives, but it's a delicate balancing act because kids who have strict limits also often have lousy outcomes. It almost sounds as though you're damned if you do (have limits) and you're damned if you don't.
The truth is that the number of limits our children have is far less important than how those limits are set. When we set limits in lousy ways, we get lousy outcomes regardless of whether there are a few or a lot. When we set limits in positive ways, we get positive outcomes, and again the number of limits is irrelevant.
It's not what, it's how.
My friend, Peter Cook, explained it to his three-year-old daughter Scarlett in a great way that is perfect for children at any and all ages. I've used it with my four-year-old and with my nearly eighteen-year-old.
It goes like this:
Draw two circles side by side, overlapping slightly. In one of the circles, write the words "Parent Decisions". In the other circle, write the words "Kids' Decisions." Explain to your child that there are some decisions that parents make for their kids regardless of what they think. And there are also some decisions that children get to make with no input from parents.
Ask your child to identify some examples of decisions that parents make. Then ask your child to identify decisions that you stay out of.
Next draw an arrow from the overlapping component of the circles. Write "we decide together". Now explain that some decisions are made by negotiation.
Once you've made it clear that you are the parent and you are responsible for certain decisions, power struggles will shift. When there's a bit of pushback you can smile and say "This is a decision that is in the parent circle". That's the end of the story. Sometimes your child will sulk. There will still be occasional screaming and arguing. But the line has been drawn, the expectation is set, and many power struggles will be defused. So long as we don't abuse the power we have as parents our children can feel secure with us calling the shots we need to call and either negotiating with - or deferring to - our children for other decisions.
One more important point: as your child matures and develops, your circles will overlap more and more. Negotiations will become increasingly common. This is healthy and normal. Then a major shift will occur. The circles will almost entirely separate. And your circle will shrink while there's enlarges. You will push increasingly large amounts of responsibility onto your child. If we want responsible children, we have to give them responsibility.
Sometimes setting limits with children is like dealing with a helium balloon on a string. They want to shoot off into the sky. They are full of enthusiasm and optimism. They want to dance and float and fly and have fun. That might be in the form of more play time, more junk food, a later curfew, or whatever else has them fired up. To be fair, often that’s appropriate. But we always hold onto that string. Sometimes we bring that balloon nice and close because the conditions are unsafe. Other times we actually hold onto the balloon (like we would if it were floating in the car and getting in the way) so it is completely safe. But to the extent possible, we allow it space to play and dance and delight.
Filled with advice about setting limits with kids that aren't simply telling them what to do and then punishing them or rewarding them based on whether or not they are obedient, it will take the guesswork out of teaching children to follow the rules.
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