Gaining Control Through Choices

How do you feel when your child blatantly ignores you? It all boils down to control and as parents we want to control our children. We want them to do what we want them to do and when we want them to do it. Sometimes our children fight us with a passion and before we know it, we are locked into a major control struggle. 

What would you do if you called your child to dinner multiple times and you get nothing? How do you think if your child would react to simply going to where they are and whispering in their ear, “We will be serving dinner for the next twenty minutes and we would love to have you join us because we love eating with you. We hope you make it, but if not, just catch us at breakfast.” 

Control is a curious thing: the more we give away, the more we gain. Parents who attempt to take all the control from their children [drill sergeant] end up losing the control they sought to begin with. We need to set the limits, but then we must give our children control of how they operate within those limits. We have to give our children some control in their lives in order to instill responsibility and independence. However, we can give kids too much control, and they are not pleasant to be around: they are brats. Control is power and these little guys want more and more. 

What is the right amount of control to give children? Psychologists say that people compare the amount of control they have in a relationship to only the amount of control they used to have, not the amount they feel they should have. When more control is allotted with time, people are satisfied; when control is cut back, people are angry. Therefore, children who are reared by parents who dole out control in increasing amounts are usually satisfied with the level of control, because it is always more than it used to be. 

Start giving out control in limited ways when they are young. For example, when the little one is taking a bath you might ask, “Do you want to get out of the tub now, or do you want to stay for five more minutes?” We don’t need that control and the kids need to feel that they have some control. We are doing our kids no favor by giving them too much power early because they become tyrants and control their parents with pouts and tantrums. Tragically, they eventually lead unhappy lives as they grow older. 

Waging a Winnable War with Choices

We cannot force our children to talk on demand, to eat what we put in front of them, or even when we want them to use the bathroom facilities. We influence our children in these areas only by modeling how we eat or talk, but every time we issue demands, we invite a fight and eventually we lose. 

The secret to establishing control is to concentrate on fighting battles that we know we can win. This means we must choose our issues very carefully. We must pick areas where we do have control over our kids and offer choices in those areas.  We cannot control to make our child eat at the table, but we can control whether they are at the table or not. We may not be able to control when a chore is done, but we can control that its completion is dependent upon the timing of the next meal. We may not control what disrespectful words come out of our child’s mouth, but we can make sure that they are not done in our presence or she will be sent to her room to cool off. 

There are three rules for control battles:

  • Avoid a control battle at all costs.
  • If you are going to get into one, win at all costs. 
  • Pick the issue carefully. Whenever a control battle is lost, it is because the issue was not chosen carefully. 

Winnable war is waged through choices, not demands. Choices change the entire complexion of the control struggle. They allow us to give away the control we don’t need and gain the control we do. With choices, kids have no demands to react against, and the control we need is established. 

One of the reasons choices work is that they create situations in which children are forced to think. They must decide. Choices provide opportunities for children to make mistakes and learn from the consequences. With every wrong choice the child makes, the punishment comes not from us but from the world around them. Then children don’t get angry with us; they get angry at themselves. Choices work because they help us avoid getting into control battles with our children. Finally, choices provide our children with opportunities to hear that we trust their thinking abilities, thus building their self-confidence and the relationship between us and them. Parents should only offer choices when they are willing to ensure that their children are forced to live with the consequences. 

Some children are born with temperaments that are less cooperative and some kids, as a result of how they are raised, become more and more defiant and stubborn as they grow older. Regardless of the child, we can make a small change in the way we talk can result in much better cooperation, fewer fights, fewer temper tantrums, less need for disciplinary action, less hate, and more loving relationships. 

Don’t set yourself up to lose. What happens when a child in a classroom moves her chair to be next to a classmate and the teacher tells her to move it back? An argument that will not be won by the teacher. It escalates and the child runs out of the room and other professionals get involved. The teacher might have chosen to use the word “consider” when addressing the child. For example, “Would you consider moving your chair back for me?” If the child does not move now, the teacher could say, “Thanks for considering it. Do you think it is a good decision to refuse when you were asked in a nice way? We will talk about this later.” Nobody loses in this battle at this point: the teacher’s authority is not challenged in front of the group and if discipline is needed, it can be done in private. 

This principle applies to parenting as well. Children who recognize that they can defy their parents become increasingly insecure and prone to test limits. Each time a request is denied, the authority of the parent is reduced in the eyes of the children. Children who live under Love and Logic guidelines have learned through experience that everybody wins when they are cooperative. 

Thinking Word Requests look like:

  • “I would appreciate your taking out the trash before bedtime, thanks.”
  • “Would you mind taking those words to your room? Thank you.”
  • “Hey, would you mind coming here, thanks.”
  • “Would you mind helping your sister now? I would appreciate it.”

Think about it, do children learn best from hearing about consequences or do they learn best from experiencing them?

A Case Study on Winning a Control Battle

What would you do in the following scenario? Aiden, a six-year old is at the local burger joint with mom and dad. The parental plan is for them to eat and then shop before the mall closes in an hour. Mom and Dad are wolfing down their dinner while Aiden is dive-bombing his burger with an airplane French fry, and blowing bubbles in his Coke. Mom says, “Hurry up with that thing! We’ve got shopping to do.” Aiden is unconcerned. Dad jumps into the fray with, “Can’t you do something with that kid?” Aiden does not fall for the “open the hangar wide for the plane” bit. Now Dad ups the ante with “You better hurry up with that thing or you know what is going to happen? We are going without you and leave you here for the police to take you to jail! Do you want that to happen?” 

Aiden is thinking something like this: I have totally controlled these two adults for twenty minutes without even opening my mouth. What a power trip! I control their tone of voice, the color of their faces, and whether or not they make fools of themselves in public. The last thing on my mind is worrying about being picked up by cops. 

Aiden’s parents blew it big-time by trying to control what was going into his mouth. Had they offered him choices and taken only as much control as they needed, they would have been able to put him in control on their terms. Try this approach: “No problem, Aiden, my car leaves in five minutes and there are two ways to leave with me, hungry or not hungry.”  Say that and be quiet. They cannot control if the food goes down his throat, but they can control when the car leaves. The struggle is transferred to Aiden’s head: “do I want to be hungry or not hungry?” 

For kids, the most effective method of controlling parents is getting them to be emotional by being frustrated. From a kid’s point of view, frustration is an irresistible mix of wonderful emotions. Adult anger and adult loss of control, no kid could ask for anything more exciting. Most of today’s sitcoms and many comic strips are based on frustrated authority figures. Kids love mock frustration [Peek-a-boo is based on mock frustration]. Whenever adults show real frustration, they give off vibrations of strong emotion, usually anger, and they delightfully declare they have no control in the situation. Frustration almost always indicates a loss of control. The parent turns red, lights up, gets noisy, and hands control to the child. What kid wouldn’t want that!

At the end of the five minutes, Dad can use fighting words, “Now, you get into the car.” Or he can use thinking words, “My car is leaving now.”  When Aiden replies with the inevitable, “Wait, I am not finished yet,” Dad can respond with, “No problem, would you prefer to go under your own power of my power, your choice?” The point is the car is leaving, period. Dad will probably have to pick up Aiden and head to the door with Aiden screaming and kicking. It will be rather embarrassing for them as they head to the car with Aiden acting out, but how many people do you suppose have never seen a child act up in a public place? ?There is a price to pay to be a parent and sometimes the price is dealing with a difficult child in a public place. 

In order to ensure that Aiden has a positive learning experience for this incident, his parents must remember to keep their mouths shut. Save the words for happier times. The only time to reason with a child is when both parties are in a good mood. Parents who enforce the consequences for their child with their mouths moving strip the consequences of their value. Allow the consequences to do the teaching. Dad carries Aiden to the car and places him gently in his seat without any commentary. Later, Aiden will inevitably say, “I’m hungry.” This is not the time for Dad to lecture Aiden, but rather say, “Sure you are hungry, that is what happens to me when I miss my dinner. I will bet you will be anxious for breakfast, won’t you? Don’t worry, I bet it will be a good one!” Sorrow and consequences are more powerful teaching agents than anger and threats. 

Choose your choices carefully. Many parents offer choices to their children make a mistake in their delivery of those choices. Often they offer choices to their children in the form of ones they can live with and ones they cannot live with. Aiden’s dad said, “You either eat that or you stay here.” Aiden knew that the second choice really was not a choice at all.

You must offer real choices and not threats:

  • Would you rather clean your room this morning or this afternoon?
  • Would you rather pick up your toys or hire me to do it?
  • Do you want to spend your allowance on fun things this week or pay someone to do your chores?
  • Do you guys want to settle the problem yourselves or draw straws to see who sits by the car window?

Nonthreatening choices, offered in a calm manner, give children a chance to take some control over their problems. 

Rules for Giving Choices

  • Always be sure to select choices that you as a parent like and can live with. Don’t provide one you like and one you don’t, because the child will usually select the one you don’t like.
  • Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to experience the consequences of that choice.
  • Never give choices when the child is in danger.
  • Always give only two verbal choices, but make sure the child knows there is an implied third choice: If he doesn’t decide, then you will decide for him. 

Your delivery is important. Try to start your sentence with one of the following:

  • You’re welcome to _____or_____.
  • Feel free to _____or_____.
  • Would you rather____ or____?
  • What would be best for you,_____ or______?

Homework 

There are three rules for control battles:

  • Avoid a control battle at all costs.
  • If you are going to get into one, win it at all costs.
  • Pick the issue carefully. Whenever a control battle is lost, it is because the issue was not chosen carefully. 

When giving “thinking word” requests, they should look like:

  • “I would appreciate your taking out the trash before bedtime, thanks.”
  • Would you mind taking those words to your room? Thank you.”
  • “Hey, would you mind coming here, thanks.”
  • Would you mind helping your sister now? I would appreciate it.”

Practice the story of the boy who refused to eat his food at the fast food restaurant. What parts of the story ring true to you and your child? Are you guilty of issuing orders rather than requests? Are you strong enough not to “cave-in” and allow your child to get what they want? How carefully do you “choose your battles?”

Practice the following “thinking word requests.”

  • “Would you rather clean your room this morning or this afternoon?”
  • “Would you rather pick up your toys or hire me to do it for you?”
  • “Do you want to spend your allowance on fun things this week or pay someone to do your chores [or pay for a sitter for you so I can complete my shopping]?”
  • “Do you guys want to settle the problem yourselves or draw straws [or rock, paper, scissors] to see who sits by the car window?”

Rules for Giving Choices:

  • Always be sure to select choices that you as a parent like and can live with. Don’t provide one you like and one you don’t, because the child will usually select the one you don’t like.
  • Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to experience the consequences of that choice.
  • Never give choices when the child is in danger.
  • Always give only two verbal choices, but make sure the child knows there is an implied third choice: If he doesn’t decide, then you will decide for him. 
  • Your delivery is important. Try to start your sentence with one of the following:
    • You’re welcome to _____or_____.
    • Feel free to _____or_____.
    • Would you rather____ or____?
    • What would be best for you, _____ or______?

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