How do I get my child to…

How do I get my child to __________?

I hear this question a lot, with varying contents filling in the blank.  For example,

…hold her pencil right?

…read more?

…practice his violin?

…keep her room clean?

…spell better?

In some ways these are all really different questions.  The bedroom and violin and the spelling are very different kinds of tasks.  But when kids aren’t complying with adult wishes, regardless of the nature of the task at hand, it’s often for very similar reasons.  And you can resolve this How do I get my child to… question with one approach for many different kinds of tasks.

You can start by checking with yourself about why you think it’s important.  Often we decide that kids should be doing various things because we had to, or because other kids are, or otherwise out of habit and popular mandate.  Upon closer inspection we may well find that the things we’re insisting upon are not actually in keeping with our goals and intentions for children.  We may even be sabotaging our own efforts.

Take the pencil-holding as an example.  If you’re paying enough attention to how your child is holding her pencil to be upset about it, chances are you are committed to her becoming a proficient writerTradition and habit compel us to make children do things whichever way we’ve decided is the best way. We settle on the best way, and then we insist that children adopt that way. 

Not only is this a sure-fire way to teach young people not to innovate, it doesn’t usually work as a way of getting them to do the thing we’re trying to get them to do and in fact discourages them from getting on board.  A good question to ask yourself is Is it getting in the way?  Is the way she holds the pencil getting in the way of anything?  Is it slowing her down?  Is it frustrating her because it’s slowing her down?  If it isn’t, then you might want to let it go.  There are likely other battles where the thing you’re trying to influence is getting in the way of something, so if this one isn’t, give yourself and your child a break from the battle of it.

But if you’ve determined that her grip is actually getting in her way, there are ways to address the problem that don’t alienate her or otherwise make the problem less likely to resolve.  A lot of it lives in the language.  If you say to your child “Don’t hold your pencil like that.  Hold it like this,” you’re really just being bossy.  I know we think that we’re entitled to boss kids around because we’re old and they’re not and people bossed us around when we were young.  (Imagine too what it would be like if every time a freshman got picked on just for being a freshman, he decided that when he became an upperclassman he wouldn’t pick on freshmen.  Soon the tradition would end, and we could move on to more interesting problems.)

I don’t bother to try to talk anyone out of bossing kids around, if it’s really getting them what they want.  But it’s usually not.  It’s usually getting them recalcitrant kids who do the very least they can to get by, which undermines the kids’ own ambitions as well as their parents’ and other adults’ ambitions for them.  You can shift everything by shifting the language you use to address your concern:

“I noticed you’ve got your pencil between your first and second fingers.  I know you’ve complained that writing is hard, and you hate to have to do it; I’m wondering if it might be more comfortable if you tried it a different way.”

Or “I noticed something about your writing that I think might help speed up the process a little bit for you.  If you want me to show you, I can.”

It’s old news that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  There’s a little more to it than that here because it’s not enough to just be nicer with your bossing. If you say “Please hold your pencil like this,” you may feel like you’re being nice, like honey, but it’s the mandate that lands like vinegar.  This message curls the tongue and turns the stomach: “I know what’s best and I’m going to tell it to you and you should be grateful that I’m looking out for you.”  Kids don’t like being bossed around any more than adults do, and when you stop bossing them around they become available for receiving input, suggestion, recommendation.