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The Art Of War For Parents

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:28pm
Here's a parenting issue I've been thinking about quite a bit lately: Choosing Battles. Everyone's heard the saying "You've got to choose your battles." It's good advice, but rarely comes with any hint of how one should choose said battles.

I don't think the parent-child relationship necessarily needs to be adversarial, but conflicts occur--well, more often than I wish. I don't start out intending to have an argument with one of my kids, but they sneak up on me, often on multiple fronts (having more than one kid). Sometimes such confrontations are inevitable, when the child is taking a battering ram to a necessary rule or limit. But many times, I find myself caught up in battles that ultimately are not worth fighting.

Here's how it typically goes down: child disagrees with or resists a limit that the parent has set for the child. Mom explains the reasons for the limit, but the kid doesn't like it, and a temper tantrum or shouting match (my son's strategy) or sneaky thwarting (my daughter's strategy) ensues. Mom and Dad must then force the limit on the child in some way (or reevaluate the need for the limit or revise it, etc.).

Force, you say? Force, I said. Leonard Peikoff, in his book The Ominous Parallels, described the two basic kinds of interactions between humans (albeit in a much different context):

There are only two fundamental methods by which men can deal with one another: by reason or by force, by intellectual persuasion or by physical coercion . . . .


Children are human beings, but their brains are in the process of growing and developing. They are not fully rational . . . not yet. But one day (we hope), they will be rational. So when attempting to get the child to do something she might otherwise not want to do, I think it's right (and worth it!) to go the Reason Route first. Why? Oh, lots of reasons. Because it might work. Because it models rational thinking for them and gets them involved in the process of rational decision-making. Because it outlines the rational reasons for whatever it is they need to do. Because it demonstrates that Mom and Dad are not arbitrary rule generators and enforcers--that they have good reasons for what they want.

However, sometimes reason will not convince. It happens from time to time. :o) And then the parent needs to decide: Do I force this issue? If so, why?

Is it ever right to force a child to do something? Sometimes, yes. By the word "force," I of course do not mean hitting the child, although occasionally physical restraint might be necessary, as in the following example. By "force," I'm talking about making the child do (or not do) something against their will.

I think most people would agree that stopping a child from running into a busy street is an appropriate use of force. Why? Because the child, not being fully rational, is endangering her life. So Mom or Dad grabs her before she darts out into traffic, simultaneously thwarting her will and preserving her life.

With less drastic situations it's really a question of determining which principles should guide a parent's decision about if and when it is appropriate to force a child to do something. (Or not do something.) In general, Brendan and I allow as much freedom as possible--in fact, we err on the side of freedom --and set our limits around individual rights--the child's rights or the rights of others.

Here are some examples of times when we've chosen to fight the good fight, with my reasons for the less obvious examples:

  • Last summer, Ryan needed a dilated eye exam. Brendan held him down against his will while the nurses put the eye drops in. (It was awful.)
  • I've forced Morgan into her carseat too many times to count.
  • [Warning to non-parents, poop story to follow.] I gave this example on another Mommy blog. When Ryan was about 2.5, he had an awful case of diarrhea with a bleeding diaper rash, too. He needed to be changed, but he was in terrible pain. We held him down and got him cleaned up while he screamed bloody murder (this was in a parking lot, too).
  • A house rule I often reinforce is Please Eat in the Kitchen. (There are many reasons for this, mostly having to do with my self-interest. It drives me crazy to find mummified string cheese in the couch, piles of crumbled up crackers in the playroom, etc. And creates more work for me. And attracts bugs. Also, there's our ever-present concern that something is mislabeled for peanut safety--if there is a reaction, I'd like to know just where to clean up possible peanut allergen contamination.)
  • Ryan has to have an Epi-pen with him if he leaves our yard.
  • If you want to wear socks, then you must go upstairs to find them on your own. I will not come with you. (Ryan and Morgan only seem to want me to go upstairs with them when I need them to do something--but will play up there contentedly for their own purposes. This is a job they need to handle themselves.)
  • Only one vitamin per day.
  • No standing on a chair and leaning over the edge of the balcony (which is very elevated).
  • Nobody is allowed to watch Star Wars - Episode III, Revenge of the Sith just yet. (It's too violent, and both Ryan and Morgan are prone to bad dreams about violent movies--although she's not the one wanting to see this movie.)

Obviously, there are varying degrees of the use of force involved here--not every one of these issues develops into a battle. But they are legitimate restrictions on what they'd like to do, either because they might be harmed, or rights are violated in some way.

Here are examples of times when I've chosen not to have a fight, or backed out of a fight already engaged:

  • A child wants to wear shorts outside on a 40 degree day (or colder).
  • The Big Dig in the backyard. (I care less about a big hole in the yard than I do about allowing the kids freedom to dig and explore.)
  • As I write this, the wood rail of our balcony is painted rainbow colors. I think it's pretty, even though it's not up to the guidelines of our homeowner's association.
  • Eat whenever you're hungry and whatever you like, with a few restrictions. (No cocktails, etc.).
  • Wearing a bike helmet, at least while they're not involved in daredevil stunts. (Yes, I know it's against the law.)
  • Climbing something from which a fall might result in a minor (or even moderate) injury. If I think they will get really hurt, I'll offer some advice information based on experience. I do draw the line before a broken bone, partly because I think I might faint or something if when that happens.
  • Spending their own money.

Much of these issues revolve around optional values. I don't particularly care about the hole in the backyard, but I know that others might strongly prefer a nice grassy area to a concave bald patch. I'm bothered by food all over the house, but I know others are not.

Obviously, every limit I enforce does not involve a knock-down-drag-out battle. (Even though there are times when it feels that way.) Here are some Positive Discipline techniques I try to keep in mind as I handle conflicts with my kids. (Actually, some of these ideas--especially the first--may not have come straight from a PD book or resource, but they are in line with PD.)


Always give a rational reason.


I don't use the "Because I Said So" phrase. If I can't find a good reason for getting the child to do something, then really, why am I asking him to do it? And if I do have a good reason, then why wouldn't I tell him what it is?

Sometimes, there isn't time to explain all of the whys and wherefores--riding one's bike into traffic, for example. So I would stop the dangerous situation first--and then give my reasons.


Stop thinking about it as a Battle.

Yes, I'm using battle analogies all over the place here, but really, I handle confrontations best when I'm focused on solving a problem versus winning an argument. Now, of course the child will want to "win" the argument, but I do my best to point out how we solved the problem together or at least remind him about the reasons.

When I've had to use physical force--such as making someone sit strapped in a carseat--I don't gloat. (I've seen parents do this!) I didn't "win," but rather I behaved as a rational parent ought to. I did my job. Also, I empathize with the child's feelings. No one likes being forced to do something, not even little children. So I say "I know you are feeling mad that I'm making you sit in your carseat. It's okay to be mad about this." And then maybe reiterate the reason. Or maybe just drop it.


Make the Hard and Fast Rules as few and infrequent as possible.

Or, as I mentioned above, Err on the side of freedom. Really, there are only a few things that I will physically force them to do. I'll make them sit in their carseats. I'll stop people from hurting each other. I'll make people attend each other's practices and activities.

Basically, I will stop them from risking irreparable damage to their own lives, limbs, or property, and those of others. In the example of making someone attend another's ballet or chess practice, that is mostly a function of logistics at this point. When any child is old enough to be left alone here, he'll have that choice. If he wanted to stay at a friend's house and it was okay with his friend's mom, then that would be fine with me. Unfortunately, our schedules and those of our friends don't match up too well. And I can't just leave him alone at home (which falls under the risk to life and limb category, I guess. Certainly, property is at risk). Therefore, he's gotta go with.


Find ways to say YES.

A qualified Yes is easier to handle than an outright No.

  • Yes, you can climb that wall--over on this side, where the drop isn't quite so large.
  • Yes, you can paint--outside.
  • Yes, you can wrestle around with your friends--as long as it's okay with them.
  • Yes, you can have another vitamin--tomorrow.


Change your mind.

This is a corollary of the Don't Think of it as a Battle guideline. If this is something not worth arguing about, then why keep arguing? I often ask myself in mid-confrontation:

  • Why is this important to me?
  • Is someone or something going to be hurt? If so, how much?
  • Are someone's rights being violated? Really?
  • Is this annoyance I feel justified? If so, why? If not, can I live with the results of saying yes?

It's surprising to me how often I find that it's not worth my time or energy to fight over something. Something my dad said to me over the phone a few days ago reminded me of a particular battle they chose to fight with me. I hated wearing dresses; it was an ongoing struggle because it was obviously important enough to them that I wore dresses frequently since it became a War of Epic Proportions. And it still bothers them, apparently. Why? I just can't imagine.

Many times I'll be involved in a conflict, ask myself those questions above, and realize that the only reason I'm trying to enforce a limit is because it was something enforced upon me. That's not a good enough reason. So I'll say, "You know what? I guess I really don't care if you wear shorts outside today. If you decide you're cold, come in and change into jeans."

This requires quite a bit of introspection for the parent. Understanding my personality, my principles, my values, and some context of what happened when I was a child is invaluable.


Extricate yourself from pointless confrontations.

First, make sure you're not the one unnecessarily dragging things on. :o) Sometimes the child prolongs the confrontation beyond the point of all tolerance. I find that saying, "I know you're upset, but I'm all done talking about this now" very useful.

Say "Hmmmmm." Sometimes a kid needs to vent a bit. A well-timed "Hmmmmm...." allows you to acknowledge them while not engaging in the battle. (It also works for when they say something hilarious and you ought to respond but are afraid you might laugh.)


Show them the light at the end of the tunnel.


If there's something that needs doing that's not super fun, like picking up toys, show them the advantage of doing so. I did that last night with Ryan. He was upset because he was the only picking up (the rest of us were engaged in other legitimate things, like nursing babies). I reminded him that the quicker he cleaned up, the more time he'd have to play his computer game. I always phrase such things in terms of the child's rational self-interest.

I'm sure there are more tactics--and I'd love to hear some that you use!

Sun Tzu said something along the lines of "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." A really smart general will win the battle before it's engaged, by showing the enemy the futility of fighting, disengage from a battle not worth fighting, or possibly make an adversary into an ally.

Of course, I don't view my kids as "the enemy." (They may very well think of Brendan and me as the enemy sometimes!) But there is an apt analogy, I think. Maybe the supreme art of parenting is to guide the child without unnecessary fighting, disengaging from the ensuing battle not worth fighting, and turning them from adversaries into allies. I think many PD strategies are well-suited to this idea. Having identified principles and values helps, too.
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