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Shower. Homework. Dishes. Less screen time. More outdoor time. Cover your cough. There are a lot of things we want our kids to do, and very often these are not the things on the top of their to-do list. They ignore, question, resist, protest, and argue. Sometimes it can feel like one long argument, from morning till night. And so when our child says “why should I do this?” we find ourselves saying the very same words we remember detesting hearing when we were growing up: “Because I said so.”
But this magic incantation doesn’t work any better on our kids than it did on us. In the best-case scenario, our child grumbles and complies. More often than not, our child continues to push back (“but WHY?”). Sooner or later, this line of reasoning only works when backed by ultimatums. And ultimatums, as all know, are not good for relationships.
Every time we coercing our child to do something, we are making a relational withdrawal. Our child becomes a little less connected to us, has a little less goodwill toward us. Wouldn’t it be nice to have our child agree and cooperate with us, rather than merely comply? For our child to feel that we are on his side, rather than against him?
What’s missing is buy-in. By “buy-in” I mean our child thinks that doing this thing (showering, putting things away, etc.) this is a good idea in and of itself, regardless of any ultimatums or rewards we provide. Behavior change requires a lot of motivation, and one of the main ingredients of motivation is buy-in. Trying to change behavior without addressing the underlying motivation is like trying to fill a cracked cup with water – it would be much faster, and easier, and more sustainable if we address the (motivational) gaps. Buy-in makes the difference between coercion and cooperation. From trimming nails to seeing a therapist, the more your child believes something is a good idea, the less you need to coerce him to do it. And the good news is that you can often get buy-in with a short conversation.
As parents, getting buy-in requires some patience and some humility on our side. Rather than jumping to the conclusion (“you should do this”), we need to be willing to explore the benefits and costs of the activity, from the perspective of our child. It means we choose to spend some time discussing the WHY, rather than jumping straight to the WHAT and HOW. It also requires good timing on your part. These conversations are unlikely to succeed when someone (you or your child) is upset. Being upset, angry or scared makes it hard for us to learn new information or change our minds about things – it makes us less cognitively flexible. It’s best to have these conversation when you and your child are relaxed and feeling connected.
When we have a good “why” conversation that results in buy-in from our child, the entire dynamic changes. Our child becomes a partner, a willing collaborator. It makes the activity easier, it reduces conflict, and it strengthens our relationship, because it makes it clear that we are on the same team. It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of this feeling of team. When we’re a team, we take care of each other. Sometimes we do things just in order to make life easier for the other person. And very often we are willing to hear and consider the other person’s opinion, because we know they have our best interests in mind. Consider the two examples from earlier, trimming nails and seeing a therapist, one involving a young child and one involving an adolescent.
When my son was about 3 years old, he did not appreciate having to take time away from playing in order to trim his nails. Although I’ve been trimming his nails since he was a baby, at some point he started questioning the need for it. The first thing I did was put down the trimmers (so he doesn’t feel like I’m about to force this on him) and said: “Let’s talk about it. You want to know why we need to trim nails?” When he confirmed, I thought about the reasons we trim nails. I told him that when his nails get long he can accidentally scratch other people (he remembered this had happened) or even scratch himself (he remembered this happening too). Long nails can also snag on something and then get pulled or broken, which hurts (I showed him how my nail can get snagged on his pants, and we tried snagging his nails on different things). Then I asked him to tell me why it’s important that his nails not be too long, and he told me the reasons back. I asked if he thinks it’s a good idea to trim nails, and he said yes. And so we trimmed his nails.
We had to repeat this a few times in subsequent nail-trimming sessions, but each time the conversation was shorter, since it built on previous conversations. After a few times, it became a non-issue – when it was time to trim nails, we trimmed nails, and that was that. So much nicer than arguing, and protesting, and crying (I won’t say who), and sulking. All it took was a few moments of conversation.
In a recent workshop I ran, a mother spoke about her teenage daughter. She was worried that her daughter is seeing the world too negatively, and wanted her daughter to try doing different things in order to change her outlook on life, from “focusing on the good things” to seeing a therapist. But the mother felt she was unable to connect with her daughter about these things; when the daughter expressed her unhappiness and the mother encouraged her to consider these options, her daughter felt ignored and unheard. This was, in part, a question of timing. When your child is upset (but not in crisis), the best thing to do is to listen well and let your child release the emotional charge. The time to give advice is only after your child’s emotional charge is released, and after your child expressed interest in receiving your advice.
But it’s also a question of alignment and buy-in. As we spoke, the mother realized she had never asked her daughter if she (the daughter) wanted to feel differently. Does the daughter feel too unhappy? Does she want to feel differently? This may seem like a strange question to ask, but it’s worthwhile. As a parent, I could choose a time when your child isn’t actively upset (for example, bringing this up during a pleasant meal). One way to do it is simply to state an observation, with warmth and caring: “I noticed you seem unhappy more often than you used to.” If our child confirms, we might ask: “And do you feel like you’re too unhappy? How important is it to feel less unhappy?” If our child says “Yes, I feel sad very often and I don’t want to feel so unhappy all the time”, then we are now explicitly aligned: Everyone agrees that the goal is to reduce our child’s unhappiness, and can start thinking together about ways to do this. Now we can explore the question of HOW to be less unhappy.
This sense of alignment is invaluable. It marks the shift from doing things TO our child to doing things WITH our child. From your child’s perspective, it marks the shift from having things done TO her to having things done WITH her. It builds trust, and comfort, and connection. And paves the road for more open discussions, and more empathy in the relationship. Sometimes, as we discuss these things with our child, we may realize that assumptions we held are incorrect. For example, we may discover that our child, while seeming unhappy, doesn’t feel unhappy. Or we may discover that while our child feels unhappy, our child feels it’s appropriate to feel unhappy and doesn’t want to change how she feels. This would take the conversation in a different direction – and one which, I believe, would be much more fruitful. We could talk about how and why people are unhappy, or about what the benefits and costs of feeling unhappy We might learn our child romanticizes the notion of being unhappy, or that our child doesn’t feel like she deserves to be happy. Who knows what we might learn if we spend more time listening.
So: Next time you’re finding yourself tempted to say “Because I said so”, try slowing down. Go over the benefits for your child and for you if this activity gets done, and discuss those with your child (perhaps at a better time). Strive for alignment. Stay connected. This is an opportunity to teach, and to learn. Enjoy your time with your child.
If you are interested in these topics, consider taking the Parenting For Humans course. Filled with exercises and opportunities for expert feedback, this self-paced class covers the foundations of Parenting for Humans, including:
- Building trust and goodwill with your child
- Inspiring cooperation without conflict
- Supporting your upset child
- Self-care for parents
- Learn and practice at the times that are best for you, while enjoying access to expert feedback and coaching, including Zoom-based “office hours”.