What to do when you NEED to get out the door and your child doesn’t want to go
So what DO you do when you need to leave the house and the child doesn’t?
This is the question I got from several parents after my post “Giving Children Choices: Empowerment or Manipulation?”
I’m going to be totally honest, there is no magic parenting formula that will suddenly make your child cooperative and want to do all the things you want them to do. I remember wishing there was (and sometimes still do).
I have some painful memories of yelling and using force to try and get a child to do something. Whether it was brushing teeth, taking a bath, or getting dressed to go out the door. Maybe in the short-term yelling, threats and force worked, but as the oldest child in my life got older, she pushed back more and more. And I knew things had to change.
When I decided I wanted to change my relationship with the children in my life, I knew that I wanted to do more than just use my larger size to force children to do what I wanted them to do.
It didn’t feel good when I forcibly picked them up and removed them. And, I needed to see that as the absolute last resort in my parenting toolbox. Only when the danger was immediate and life-threatening did I want to use that method.
Force had been used on me as a child and I had vowed to not do it with them. But somehow it was a bigger struggle to find different ways to parent than it was to honor my vow to myself to not spank, hit, or threaten.
Unfortunately, the default mode of using power and control was the most common thing I had experienced growing up. This is true for many of us. We have to unlearn what we learned and gain some new tools.
Gaining cooperation isn’t about behavior. We think it is. But even though we sometimes think we desperately need to change their behavior, it’s our own thinking that needs to shift.
Our relationship with the child in our life is a process. It is about building trust over time.
And our culture is too often about immediate behavioral changes. The default parenting mode we learn is power over and control of children to change their behavior. And when we’re stressed and hurried and frustrated we fall back into this default mode.
What can a harried, stressed, frustrated parent do?
Sometimes we just want the magic words, the formula for making it happen without crying, pleading or threatening.
Here is what I’ve learned through my own journey and in working with other parents.
The more that we honor children’s needs when it isn’t critical to get out the door, the more cooperative they are when we absolutely have to go. It’s not a guarantee. However, the more I treated the children in my own life with respect and dignity, the more they began to trust me.
The more that I was willing to SLOW down and take the time to hear what was happening with them, the more they began to trust me.
The more I tried to take their requests seriously, they more they began to trust that I would do my best to honor what they wanted.
The more that I learned that their “rebellion” was just the natural need of any human being to have control over their own bodies, the more we connected.
And sometimes they just want what they want and I need to do something different than what they want. And they are sad, angry, and frustrated.
As parents, we have to retrain ourselves from the default of using our power just for convenience sake. It’s also about letting go the other common default mode of needing compliance when it is not really needed.
(Side note: I will say, for the record because this comes up far too often, that yes, I will physically stop a child from running into the street and getting hit by a car. I’ve done it and will do it again. If there is immediate danger, you do what you need to do to protect your child.)
I had to first undo some of what I had already done by using force or manipulation.
I began to listen more. I began to try and understand more of how they were feeling. I had to understand that even though I felt manipulated by them, the ways I had manipulated and controlled them made them not trust me. It was a vicious cycle.
On a daily basis, I have to behave in ways that show I care about their feelings even when it isn’t convenient for me.
This is the shift we are working toward.
So often the “tasks” of parenting, getting them dressed, out the door, into the car seat, to the appointment, are seen as just that, tasks. You get them done as quickly as possible. But it is in the doing of the “tasks” that we can redefine the relationship from one of power and control to one of trust, mutuality, and respect.
Our relationships are created in the small daily interactions.
Relationships with children aren’t really about the big gestures… the “Guess what kids, we’re taking you to Disneyland!” gestures.
Sure that’s exciting.
Our relationships are built on how we treat children when we’re in the house getting ready to go out, or cooking dinner, or talking about the day, or trying to manage the differences in our opinions and desires.
Each interaction is an investment.
Each interaction builds upon the other and creates a relationship that is either built on trust and respect or control and manipulation.
Common parenting wisdom says that children have to earn our trust.
I would say even more importantly, because we are given so much power over children as adults, we have to earn a child’s trust.
When we diminish children in small ways on a daily basis, the big trip to Disneyland isn’t going to change the core of the relationship. It’s just fluffy icing on a bitter cake.
Can you build trust and get out of the house without pulling out your hair?
When I knew I had to get out of the house at a certain, I would start prepping early.
Early, like the night before.
I would mention to them that tomorrow I had an appointment and we would need to be out of the house by a certain time. I try to make sure there are few surprises. And sometimes it helped me to plan the night before what needed to be done for my own stress level to be lower.
Sharing this information isn’t about making a “deal” with the child. (I will talk about making agreements and deals in a bit.)
On the day of the appointment, I give lots of transition time. I do this as much for myself as I do the children in my life.
Sometimes the child still doesn’t want to go. Yes, no matter how much prep you do this can still happen. So I just acknowledge the fact that he doesn’t want to go, but I can’t reschedule or miss the appointment. And, if it was truly something I could postpone then I tried to do that. I try to question whether something really had to happen or I just think it has to happen.
Starting early, allows me to make sure I have enough time to be with them and hold space for how they are feeling.
What is “holding space?”
It looks like sitting down next to the child who is sad or crying and just being with them. Perhaps it is giving voice to what they might be feeling. “I know it really sucks when we have to do something and leave before you’re ready. Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”
With the youngest child in my life, he often doesn’t want me to say anything, but to just give room and space for him to be angry or sad. Holding space is about being there in ways that are most helpful to the child.
By creating enough time before we have to leave, we can be present with children without the stress of worrying about being on time. We hold space for them to feel whatever they feel without judgment.
And, we also have to hold space simultaneously for our own feelings. We may feel frustrated, angry, wanting the child to be okay and not be upset. Perhaps we even feel like what has to be done sucks too and we want the child make our lives easier by cooperating.
Making Agreements with Children: A Set-up for Conflict
Sometimes we want to strike a “deal” or make an “agreement” with the child ahead of time. We think this is going to make it easier. We say, “Tomorrow I have to go to this appointment and I need your help. Promise me you will help me tomorrow and do what I ask you to do without complaining.”
This is all well and good. But, too often the “deal” is a set up for disappointment and frustration. We expect that the child will be able to hold up their end of the bargain.
Perhaps at the time the child “agreed” she was just going along with you. Perhaps she felt pressure to say yes. Maybe she said yes and she wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying. Perhaps she really wants to cooperate and says yes.
She says yes and then we feel a bit of relief. Phew! It will be easier this time, we convince ourselves.
Then the time comes for her “honor” the agreement and she feels sad. Too often we’ve learned as parents to say, “Well remember last night when you agreed to….” We too often use deals or agreements with children to force them to hide their true feelings about whatever is happening in the moment.
We do this to make us, as adults, feel better. We hope by striking the deal, we can avoid a child’s sad feelings. Then when the child responds in a very natural way by being sad that she has to leave the game she’s playing to go to the appointment, we use the “deal” to manipulate her.
I would encourage you to hold those deals lightly. Don’t expect a child to honor the deal.
But, you are saying in your head, “If I don’t force her to live up to her word, she’ll never learn what it means to be responsible.”
Let’s step back from that belief and look at this from another place.
Let’s put it in another light. You make an agreement with your friend to meet her for lunch. You make plans the night before and both of you are excited about doing it.
The next morning goes badly for your friend. She is feeling stressed or overwhelmed. When she calls you to cancel, do you say to her, “But you made a deal with me. You agreed to have lunch with me. And I am very disappointed in you that you won’t honor our agreement.”
Most likely you don’t say this. Yes, you are disappointed. You wanted to have lunch and spend time with your friend. But, you support her and say, “I’m sorry that your morning sucked! Is there anything I can do to help? How about we get together next Saturday?”
This is how we treat our adult friends. When we value relationships and there is trust between friends, we respond with a spirit of understanding and support.
But with children, we have accepted the belief that unless we force them to follow-through on their commitments, they will never learn how to be responsible.
We buy into the “logic” that self-regulation is only learned from the outside in. There is a lot of research that shows the opposite. For example, when we control a child’s “negative” emotional expressions, researchers have found a negative impact on her competence outside the home, both in social and task-oriented situations.
The suppression of emotions doesn’t allow the child to integrate the distressing experience and make sense of it. When he experiences a similar distressing situation, he relives the suppressed emotions of that past experience. This creates even more emotional distress as he grows up.
In studies of adolescents perceptions of control by parents, researchers have consistently found that psychological control, included constraining and invalidating emotional expressions and experiences were related to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems.
And at a core emotional level, when we force a child to push down his emotions to honor the deal we made with him, what we teach him is that we care more about doing what we need to do than how he feels.
Creating relationships with children that are based on trust and respect isn’t easy in our culture.
We often don’t get a lot of support for listening to children and taking them seriously. If we ourselves weren’t treated with respect, we live with the aftereffects of that into adulthood. We are have the challenge of being a parent who is learning to parent differently with our child when we have little experience doing so. And, we also have to support ourselves to regain what we lost in a childhood where we were not trusted by adults around us.
It can be done.
I’ve been on that journey myself. And sometimes it feels like it’s been a long journey. I am not perfect. I fall into the ditch, yell, get back up, apologize, reconnect, and keep moving forward.
And I’ve had the privilege of seeing other parents do the same.
Treating children with trust and respect creates a foundation for them to go out in the world understanding who they are and what their value is. And at the same time, we can begin to integrate our own past experiences from childhood and create the foundation we may not have gotten in our childhoods.