There’s a parenting question that comes up perhaps more frequently than any other. We seem to be able to wrap our heads around how to respectfully set limits, offer choices, acknowledge their feelings, understand the differences between natural and logical consequences, even calmly support them through tantrums. But when push comes to shove, there is one thing that stumps us:
“What do I do when they simply refuse to do what I am asking them to do?”
I would reword the question, actually. Don’t get me wrong, I hear you. You’re asking what to do when your kids refuse to pick up their toys, put their clothes on, brush their teeth, clean up a mess they made. I know. i would still reword it. I hear the words that you are asking. And after they go through the filter that is oh-so-handily inside my ears, the question looks a lot more like:
“What do I do when I’m not in control?”
That’s right. Control. We’re all a little obsessed with control, in my opinion. It’s one of those things that falls solidly in the “should” or “have to” category. It’s the lever on the ticker tape machine (oops, I think I’m dating myself–pic over there, just in case) that rolls out endless tape that reads:
“If I don’t make them do it, I’m a pushover,”
“She HAS to. I’m the parent, I have to make her do it,”
“It’s my JOB to teach her. She may be stubborn, but I can outlast her.”
“My life is going to be hell if I don’t insist that they do it. They’ll walk all over me.”
“I am NOT going to have one of those entitled kids who expect their parents to do everything for them.”
“They have to learn responsibility and that actions have consequences!”
“I have to make it clear that I’m in charge. It’s non-negotiable. I’ll sit here until they do it.”
What did you think and feel as you read those examples? My guess is that most of you felt some version of “That’s RIGHT!” And you would find a lot of support for that. Yes, even among “gentle” or “respectful” parents and bloggers. Ironically, I’ve found more rigidity among these communities than I might have expected. To me, it looks like a reaction to being seen as “permissive.” We want people to be sure to know that just because we’re respectful or gentle, we aren’t permissive, so we talk a lot about how to get kids to do things, because if we’re tough (and yet still kind), it proves that we’re not the doormats that people make us out to be.
I don’t buy it.
So once again, I find myself in a position of seeing things a bit differently (yeah, it’s my destiny.) You know what I think and feel as I read those examples up there? I think that they all sound a bit like we’re dealing with the enemy. They’re adversarial. I’m right, they’re wrong. I know better. They’re just stubborn. I have to break them. I’m The Parent.
And fear. Let’s not forget about fear. Fear that we’ll be ineffectual. Fear that our children will grow up to be entitled. Fear that our friends and relatives who think we’re those kooky people who do that “gentle discipline stuff” will laugh and shake their heads at us, either in our presence or behind our backs, or both. Or worse yet, they’ll “tsk” at us, as if to say “Well, if you were more in charge, your kids would have better manners.” Lots of fear in parenting. Yup.
See, the thing is, I don’t think we don’t have to have that sort of relationship with our children. I know we think we do. But we don’t. It’s a choice. It’s not a non-negotiable. There are other ways. So let’s talk about just one of them. And no, it does NOT lead to children who walk all over you.
Now, before you think I’ve gone completely loony tunes (or–gasp–that I am in favor of permissiveness, which I assure you that I am not), let me say that yes, I do know and accept that our role as parents is to “teach” responsibility, values, helpfulness, manners, self-care, independence, routines, cause and effect, blah blah blah. The problem–and it is a problem–is that these are things that can’t be taught. Well, okay, they can be taught. It’s true, you can make your kid do anything. But the things that you “teach” don’t stick. Not in the way that I want them to at least.
Children do not learn from what we say. They don’t even learn from what we do. They learn from who we are. And they’re always watching.
That’s why I choose to model graciousness.
Now before we go any further, let me just say that, although I have used this strategy for as long as I can remember–first with the children I worked with and then with my own child–I did not come up with this nifty difty little name. I owe that to a wonderful woman from New Zealand, an unschooling mom that I met online in several RIE discussion groups. Whenever this topic would come up, she would be a lone voice. Amid the fifty or sixty comments in which parents gave one another tip after tip about how to get-the-kid-to-do-the-thing, suddenly her name would appear, and next to it, it would say two words: Model Graciousness. There it was. In two words. Perfect. (Thank you, L.)
So this is my answer (now that I have a name for it and all.) Model graciousness.
What does it mean?
It means that you demonstrate and model for them the authentic spirit and intention that you wish for them to possess. If you want them to be generous, be generous (yes, of spirit, not just with “things.”) If you want them to be helpful, be helpful. If you want them to help without being asked, help without being asked. If you want them to speak softly, speak softly. If you want them to say thank you, say thank you. Always without resentment—because I presume that you don’t want children who resent you. You get the idea.
Yes. It’s really that simple.
She intentionally (or so it appears) pours a glass of milk on to the table, where it cascades on to the floor. Having her help clean it up is a logical consequence. You get her a rag, and you ask (or preferably, tell) her to clean up the milk she spilled. She refuses. Or laughs. Or runs off. You go get her and you calmly explain that the milk is on the floor and it has to get cleaned up because if it stays there it will start to smell really bad and it will make the floor slippery and dangerous, and that you’d like her to help clean it up, and that you will help her. You get two cloths, and offer her one, and you ask (tell) her “I need your help to clean up the milk. Here is your cloth and here is my cloth. We’ll do it together.” Or you get one cloth and a small container of water, and you say “We need to clean up the milk. Would you like to use the cloth to wipe it up or would you like to hold the container while I wipe it up?” (Pay attention: here’s where it gets tricky. don’t stop reading now!) She refuses again. Or laughs again. Or throws the rag. Or runs off again. You’re sitting there (undoubtedly frustrated) thinking “But I asked just the right way! I gave her choices! I offered to help her! She can’t just pour milk on the floor and not have any consequence! I have to wait her out or make her come do it–how do I do that? I’m perfectly calm, I’m not getting upset, I’m doing everything the way the books/experts say to do, and she’s still not helping! I have the most out of control kid ever. What now?!?)
I’ll tell you “what now.” Model graciousness. Clean it up. Say, with confidence (and feel with confidence, too…that matters) that you’re happy to help this time and that you’re sure she will help next time. Because you are sure that she’ll help next time (right??) And if it turns out that you’re wrong, and she doesn’t help next time, still have confidence that she will do it the next time (and chalk it up to developmental stage or fatigue or teething or a long day at school or that toy that broke earlier in the day.) Quiet the anxious voices in your head that say “if i clean it up, she’ll never learn responsibility.” Quiet the resentful voices in your head that say “I’m sick of doing everything for her when she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself.” Quiet the punitive voices in your head that say “she spilled it, she needs to clean it up.” Have trust that she will do it next time. Because one of these times, she will. She will be like you. Helpful. Generous. Altruistic.
I would give another example, but it works pretty much the same way no matter what the example is. You know that expression “Be the change you wish to see in the world?” Yeah. This is that, parenting style.
You want to know why. I know you want to know why. So I’m going to put it as simply as I possibly can: “I didn’t do it.”
I know that all of us have heard this, whether as a child ourselves, as a teacher, as a parent, among extended family, or at the park. A parent or a teacher or an older child asks (tells?) children to clean something up. They say “I didn’t do it” or “It’s not my mess” or “You clean it up” or “I wasn’t working over there.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, this phrase is like fingernails on a chalkboard. It is the epitome of everything that I do not want my child to be. I want to raise a child who is prosocial, generous, altruistic, empathic. I want my child to be the one the teacher sends an email about because she was the only one who didn’t laugh when another child’s experiment blew up in science class, and the only one who went over and helped him clean it up without being asked. I never want to hear the words “it’s not my mess” come out of my child’s mouth when she is asked to help clean up–by me or anyone else. I want her to smile and say “Sure.” And I don’t only want her to help–I want her to help without resentment of any sort. (is it a pipe dream? No. It isn’t.) This is what altruism is. I hold it sacred.
If I want her to do that and be that person, then I have to do that and be that person. Help without resentment. Accept others’ emotional or developmental limitations, either in general or in the moment. Model graciousness.
Trust. It’s the elusive trick of parenting. We resort to control and fear because we do not trust that who we are is enough, that the values and traits that we model will be enough to transmit what we wish for our children to embody. We don’t trust that we do all of it as well as we want our children to do it–we want them to be better than us, not just like us. So we have to teach them to do it better than we do. And we forget that that’s not possible, because they are watching us.
So this is the hard stuff. Trusting that we’re enough. Trusting that yes, we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll acknowledge them and try to do better, and they’ll see that and forgive their own mistakes. Trusting that we can make the changes in ourselves that we want for our children. Trusting that we don’t have to be perfect to transmit the values that we hold most dear. Trusting that if we embody the values that we desire, our children will develop them, in their own way and time, which may be different than the way and time that we imagine. It’s a tall order. It’s worth it.
And yes. There are things that are non-negotiable. And yes, those require a different set of strategies. This isn’t the answer for every single potential power struggle. There is no “answer” for every situation in parenting. Everything “depends.” There are times that this doesn’t apply. And then you pull a different tool out of your tool box. Sometimes playfulness really helps. Sometimes sticking firmly to a strict limit is the only viable choice. But a lot of the time, modeling graciousness is just the thing.
Just to be clear: this is not about just following your child around, cleaning up after them. That would be a failure to teach them responsibility, and yes, that teaches entitlement. This is about seeing yourself as a willing helper, the extra support that our children need to practice or to be willing to do it themselves. Modeling graciousness does not mean you don’t have expectations. You do. You must. It’s about what happens when those expectations fall apart, and having another tool in your toolbox, one that is not motivated by fear or control.
Just for today, try it out. Do an experiment. Take that phrase, that anxiety-laden phrase (or any facsimile thereof), “I have to make them do it or they’ll never learn”, take it out of your head for the day. Replace it with “I will model the behavior and values that I desire. I trust that they will learn from me.” Every time you hear one of those phrases come into your head (“but he has to!” “She’s gonna be a spoiled brat” “I’m failing at this whole parenting thing, I’m a pushover” “No one else has kids that are rude like mine”), push it out. Reject it. Replace it with “We are in this together. I trust in their generosity and capabilities. It will come.”
Yeah, it requires a leap of faith, like a high jump off the rocks into a crystal blue ocean. Scary. Yes. Never thought we’d find ourselves there. But instead of spending two hours standing there explaining to our children why they need to jump, why they shouldn’t be afraid, how you will catch them, why it’s important to overcome their fear, how you-came-up-all-this-way-because-they-said-they-wanted-to-do-it-and-you’re-not-going-back-down-so-they-might-as-well-jump-because-that’s-what-has-to-happen, you are jumping with your child, hand in hand, both of you laughing and screaming with glee (and some fear) as you fall through the air, splash, and surface with unbridled victory and accomplishment beaming from both of your faces. It will be an source of pride for both of you for years to come. Your child will see you as fearless. You will see them as courageous. And well into the future, you will both remember. You will remember that, in this life, we’re all in it together. Start now.