“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” – Peggy O’Mara
The other day my son asked, “Why do adults get to do whatever they want, and kids don’t?”
He is now 3 3/4 and takes so much pride in doing things for himself. It is almost an affront when we say ‘don’t.’ Yet at times, we need to – playing with flying LEGO around the stove when water is boiling, climbing the railings over our concrete staircase, trying to walk up the stairs 3 at a time; things that don’t really lend themselves to ‘natural consequences.’
Then there are societal things that are beyond our control. We are surrounded by temptations deliberately marketed to children: candy bars at eye level at the check out of every kind of store, candy bins at the front door of stores beckoning children to come in, toys with guns, toys with gender stereotypes, movies with fighting… Things that I want in moderation for my son (in an ideal world, I don’t want at all) and yet, he wants them. He sees his friends have them. I don’t want to be the parent who always says no. Saying ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ can be easier in the moment, but not in the long run…
His question was a reminder that we need to be more creative. We’re pretty good at the explanations-and-reasoning (some may say lecturing) part – but they just don’t seem to catch his attention. And they certainly won’t when he’s a teen; if this continues, we’re headed for teen rebellion!
So, here is some alternatives to ‘don’t’ that may shift a child’s experience of not getting to ‘do anything’ (which is totally not true – but not getting reactive to such statements is for another post). This list isn’t exhaustive, but a few ways to do the don’ts differently.
1) Give an alternative: Instead of “Don’t climb on the gas pipe.” (deep breath), we said “We can help you climb on the bike post over there.” Crisis averted.
2) Give choices: Instead of “Don’t play with your LEGO by the stove,” we can say “You can play with it at the table or the living room.”
3) Take a breath before answering: When he asks to buy something that is a treat (but tolerable) but that I wasn’t intending to buy, instead of an immediate “No,” pause and consider. Sometimes it might fit to say yes. Sometimes it may not. But at least it is conscious.
4) Let them know that you have heard their request: Instead of “No, we are not buying this toy,” we might say “I hear that you would like that toy. We can keep that in mind when we decide it is time to get a new toy.” (You may then get 50 reminders a day, but they know you are listening).
5) Be playful – allow them to express their wishes even if you don’t act on them: This is one of my personal favourites courtesy of Faber & Mazlish. Instead of lecturing on the evils of refined sugar we can say, “Yes. It sure would be fun to eat chocolate cake every day.” (I try to hold back on the “but” statement as that can get into a lecture.) I know we are not having chocolate cake every day -or week for that matter – but it’s not a problem for him to want it. I find by letting him have his feelings about it, it actually gets dropped fairly quickly. I then talk about healthy eating and treats vs. snacks, etc. at a time when I haven’t just turned down a request. Then he is more receptive.
6) Make a big deal out of things that you do do. Things like getting a favourite book from the library, setting up a play date with a school friend, making home-made ice cream (my personal fave).
By using these and other alternatives, and not sounding like a “don’t” broken record, when I do have to say a firm or quick “Don’t,” the hope is he takes it more seriously.
Any ideas to share?