How good they have it (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday)

Context

What if when kids resist, it’s less about whether or not they think they should be expected to perform a given task and more about the context in which they’re asked to perform it? Paying attention to the context of resistance not only acknowledges where kids are coming from, it reveals more of what may actually be so about the impact parents have made in their attempts to teach kids the importance of contribution.  It also makes more room for peace and productivity.  Letting go of the don’t-know-how-good-they-have-it interpretation is also more likely to yield the results parents want: things get done, and the relationship between parent and child is improved and deepened, rather than weakened by the power struggle and resentment.

For me as a reluctant dishwasher, the resistance was less about the dishes and more about the fact that they were taking me away from what, to me at the time, was very serious.  My dishwashing resistance was at its peak when I was about nine years old.  As a nine year-old, I had a tendency to think about a lot of things all at the same time.  At any given moment, I’d be puzzling over something that happened recently on the playground at school, figuring out how much more money I needed to earn in order to buy whatever I was saving up for, deciding on which book I would read next.  It would have been difficult to catch me at a time when I wasn’t deep in some fairly involved thinking session.  This thinking was not of much larger consequence, but I was consumed and engaged by it.  So when my mom asked for something small, like the dishes, she was usually interrupting.  Not in a rude way, not in an unreasonable way, but interrupting nonetheless.  In my world, from my perspective, I was busy.  In her world, from her perspective, I was not.

When you ask your child to do her one chore for the day (or week) or her 15 minutes of math, it’s very unlikely that she thinks to herself “15 minutes of math?  Mom is really too much.  Yesterday she asked me to take out the trash, and now this?  I shouldn’t have to do anything, and here she is asking me to do two things in two days! That may be OK for some kids, but not me!”

What’s more likely is one or more of the following: she was doing something else and really doesn’t want to stop, she’s tired, she hates the math, she’s still upset about something that happened earlier in the day and wasn’t resolved.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that she thinks the request is unreasonable.  It’s possible to not feel like doing something without thinking that it’s unreasonable that you’re being asked to do it.  As adults, we know this from our own experience.  Getting up in the morning to go to work is a good example.  Cooking.  Exercising. You may not feel like working, or making dinner, or going to the gym, but that doesn’t mean you think you shouldn’t have to. We sabotage our relationships with kids and our chances of getting them on board with task completion when we don’t allow them that familiar moment of resistance. The good news is that it’s possible to allow the moment without having to yield to it.

The dishwashing situations that turned ugly at my house were the ones in which my mom forgot to acknowledge the possibility that I wasn’t just being a brat about things.  When she found a way to see things from my perspective before she reacted, things tended to proceed more peacefully and productively.  Mom also sometimes remembered that very often the things children say and behaviors they try on are just things they’re trying out; not things they’ve considered or decided upon.  When adults respond as though kids are conveying their permanent positions, those positions have a habit of intensifying and solidifying.  When adults respond as though kids are just experimenting with how they’re going to be, there’s more room for adjustment.

So if you can catch yourself when a child rolls her eyes (as though you’ve asked her to quickly erect a pyramid in the Egyptian desert when you’ve actually only asked for a little help with setting the table), if you can imagine that you may just have caught her in the middle of a really good chapter or on a day after she had a hard time sleeping or just before she figured out a solution to a longstanding problem, you’ll have a better chance of getting her to do what you’ve asked without an ensuing scene.  And it doesn’t mean you’ll have to excuse her from setting the table.

Your words will be altered by your recognition that she’s having a life too, and that while she may feel a little more comfortable than you’d like with showing you every last emotion and inclination that she has, it’s not that she’s a brat and doesn’t want to help.  When you’re coming from that estimation, you’re less likely to default to something like “Well, I’m sorry you don’t want to, but I think it’s the least you can do after wandering around all day doing nothing while I cleaned the house and drove your brothers to three hockey games.  Set the table.” You’re more likely to say something like “Honey, it sounds like I caught you in the middle of something, or maybe you just really don’t feel like doing the table this minute.  I get it.  Do you think you could set aside whatever it is, and right now jump in with the silverware so we can get supper started soon?  It’d be a big help to me here.”

She’s not necessarily going to spring into action gleefully and set the table the first time you respond this way.  But what you’re doing with these words and their tone is making it possible for her to consider more than just the moment she was in and the experience she was having when you made your request.  Without dismissing her experience and without condescending, you’ve acknowledged that the task might not be something she’s delighted to do just then.  This kind of acknowledgment creates a condition in which it’s possible for a child to hear what you’re saying and really consider the choice she’ll make next.

to be concluded tomorrow…

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