De-enforcing

Kids and adults often get stuck in a dynamic of enforcer and enforcee.  I spoke with a mom yesterday who is exhausted and discouraged that so many of her afternoons and evenings are spent just getting her son through his homework.  She’ll keep doing it if she has to, but it’s hurting their relationship.

Parents end up in these exhausting power struggles out of a well-intentioned interest in getting kids through.  They feel like they have to choose – put your foot down, or just give up. This dynamic of power struggle leaves kids to choose only between compliance and resistance.

The homework (or chores, or anything else) may ultimately get done in this context of  well-intentioned enforcement (akin to benevolent dictatorship), but any gains come at great cost.  Many of us have resigned ourselves to this relationship with kids – we think it’s the best we can do.  Everyone’s doing it, and everyone’s exhausted by it, but we don’t see an alternative.

Part of the problem is that we have difficulty seeing kids as people (this is thanks to history; we weren’t seen as people when we were kids either). We relate to kids as though their preferences, moods, and other traits and fluctuations are somehow distinct from adults’ – to be handled differently.  We see it as our responsibility to override or bypass anything that interferes with the intended course of things (like getting through math, for example).

What if we were to commit ourselves to observing and managing those traits and fluctuations with kids instead of for them?  For example, instead of saying something like “You just have to tonight, honey, it’s your job,” you might say “Wow.  Yesterday you were excited to practice, and now suddenly we’re on our way to a fight about it; I wonder what’s different,” or “I know this doesn’t seem like much fun, but I’m concerned that if you don’t do it, it’s going to mean… What do you think?”

When you talk to kids this way, you invite them into a collaborative relationship.  You make it possible for the two of you to be on the same team, sharing a stake in and concern for their future.  It’s a shift from mandating (which you’ve probably noticed has a pretty low success rate anyway) to offering.

It’s not a magic pill by any means, this approach.  If you’ve been in the enforcement habit for many years, you’ve got lots to undo and rebuild.  That will take patience, reflection, and ongoing conversation.  But you’ll get to stop running yourself ragged pushing and pulling your child along.  You’ll get to take all the energy you were spending on that and apply it instead to building the kind of lasting collaborative relationship that can generate actual success and bring you and your child closer together.

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