“I WANT to drink chocolate milk before bed! WHY won’t you LET me?!” My three year old has the persistence and determination to be the next Bill Gates in few decades. Sometimes I tell him “no,” and then try to ignore his incessant begging. Sometimes ignoring doesn’t help, so I give him an explanation. Sometimes fifty million explanations of how the chocolate will rot his teeth still does not end the arguing and whining. So, ultimately I end up throwing a loud and frustrated, “BECAUSE I SAID SO” his way.
Whenever I find myself caught in a power-struggle with one of my boys, I can’t help but think of the story of the “Three Little Pigs.” It seems that during these power-struggles I have lost track of the purpose of parenting. Instead of simply aiming “to get our kids to listen to us,” the purpose of parenting is supposed to be “to prepare our kids to make good decisions when we are not there to guide them.” Instead of insisting that our little ones make a brick house because we said so, the goal is to “instill the character, awareness, and reasoning which would actually compel them to use bricks to build their houses.”
And this is good to keep in mind because someday, even though it feels very, very far-off, our little piggies will be off to seek their fortunes without us.
So if my child grows up respecting his body and health, and developing the ability to delay gratification for the sake of his health overall, would it have been that big of a deal if I allowed him chocolate milk before bed a few times in his childhood? I mean is all of my huffing and puffing kind of irrelevant to the whole point of parenting? More importantly, is automatically saying “no” depriving him of an opportunity to do some real-world problem-solving and offer to brush his teeth after he has the chocolate milk? (Problem-solving and follow-through on his solution is something I’d be proud to instill in him. Those certainly sounds like characteristics of a brick-layer in the making.)
The world that our children face requires them to have an excellent ability to think for themselves and make wise decisions. There are straw-peddlers on every corner offering gratification and short-cuts, and our kids will have to think: Is this behavior or decision actually in my best interest or not? And if they are not prepared to think critically about their choices, they may land right in the jaws of a real-life big, bad wolf. (sub-prime mortgage anyone?) The big goal of parenting is to prepare our kids for the world, so they truly avoid the big-bad-wolves of job-loss, failed relationships, preventable health problems, problematic addictions/habits, and financial stress. It is not to simply get them to submit to our authority.
So the question is: Are there ways to help our young children develop the character and awareness to bi-pass the easy-way-out, delay gratification, and make wise choices? Are we raising the kind of piggies that would decide to build their houses with bricks? Here are five simple ideas for doing just that:
1) It is important to give explanations for why a behavior is or isn’t a good idea (or why something is a rule), but it is ALSO important to ask the child why they think a behavior is or isn’t a good idea. My son was told a million times not to throw his “computer” into the toy basket, but it wasn’t until I asked him “what do you think could happen to the computer if you throw it in the basket?” that he fully respected that the toy could break. I’d imagine that if I asked my 3-year old what he thought might happen to his teeth if he drank chocolate milk before bed, he’d be more on-board with my rule, but more importantly he’d be more likely to consider the effects of sugar on his oral health for years to come and practice general critical thinking in the future.
2) ALWAYS encourage your children to take ownership over their own problems, potential solutions, and potential consequences. If my son is whining for chocolate milk, I might gently say to him, “So you are really thirsty and you know that chocolate will make your teeth get cavities. Can you think of a way to make yourself not thirsty any more without harming your teeth?” Then he might come up with the suggestion to drink water or to brush his teeth after the chocolate milk. However, if he doesn’t come up with a solution, I could ask him if he would like to hear my ideas for solutions, basically working as a consultant about his problem, not someone that is coming in and automatically solving his problem. In any other context besides “at home with mom,” his problems will be his problems, and he will be better-off for having practiced critically managing and solving them for himself.
3) Share your own experiences with testing limits. Sometimes lessons can be integrated vicariously through the mistakes of others. If you can tell your daughter about the time you went to the dance in the too-short dress and were so uncomfortable and couldn’t even sit down the whole night, she might be more likely to consider the appropriateness of her attire without actually having to make the same mistake.
4) Whenever possible, let your kids make mistakes, acknowledge, and experience the natural consequences. It may get to the point where my son forgets or “tests” my rule and ends up throwing the computer in the toy basket and breaking it. In that instance, I certainly will not fix or replace the computer. This tactic is showing our children that it is worth respecting limits/delaying gratification for the sake of avoiding real consequences. Later on in life, there will be jobs, relationships, and finances at stake, and I would be happy if he learned lessons on something as insignificant as a toy computer.
5) Do it all with empathy. Encourage them to think about and solve their own problems, offer suggestions, and offer limits/consequences, all with a gently and supportive tone. Remember, your little piggies will make plenty or mistakes, and you want to create the atmosphere in which they can learn and grow from those mistakes, not feel discouraged and inadequate. My three year old might whine, “NOOO!” after I gently suggest that he drinks water before bed in order to solve his problem, and his whine would just be my cue to calmly say, “Bummer. that’s really too bad that you don’t want to solve this problem. It makes me sad that you’re going to go to bed thirsty,” while closing his bedroom door.
6) Ask “debriefing” questions after experiences. Ask what your kids what they noticed they did right, what learned from their mistakes, what they think they might do differently next time, etc. The next night when my child whines about chocolate milk again, I might casually ask him if he was happy with his choice the night before or if he would like to hear some more ideas from mommy about how to solve his problem.
Of course I used the example of my toddler insisting on chocolate milk before bed, but these suggestions also apply to higher-stake issues that will come later– sex, drugs, curfew, drinking, etc. The foundations necessary for successfully navigating these major issues later-on include a healthy parent/child dynamic, well-developed critical thinking skills, and a mature respect for cause and effect. Why not get a head-start on cultivating that foundation? It might make the difference between raising a piggy that builds his house of bricks and raising a piggy that falls into the trap of Mr. BB Wolf.
Just something to think about!
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