Lesson 5. Help them get what they want in a way you feel good about
The lure of the attic Anytime Mom climbed the ladder to the attic, 4-year-old Melissa was right behind her. Mom would tell her to stay down but as soon as Mom wasn't watching, Melissa would start to climb the ladder. Mom would yell. Melissa would wait—then climb again.
Predictable patterns It is common for parents to forbid certain things for children. Does the child react by saying “I know that you are wiser than I. I will defer my interest in attics until I am more mature.”?
What is the likely child reaction to the forbidden?
A balancing act The job of a parent is complicated. We want to encourage learning and curiosity but we also want children to be safe. How could the attic dilemma be handled in a way that respected both goals?
A field trip At the advice of a friend, Mom alerted Melissa next time she was headed to the attic. “Would you like to go up to the attic. If you will wait at the bottom of the stairs for a minute, I'll put a box in the attic. Then I'll come down and get you. OK?”
What is Melissa's reaction likely to be?
Helping Melissa get what she wants . . . Melissa was delighted. She waited while her mother took the box to the attic. Then Mom returned to help Melissa up the stairs. Once in the attic, Mom allowed Melissa to hold the flashlight and point it while Mom told her about the things that were stored.
Doesn't this kind of thing take a lot of time?
Most humans also invest a lot of time in eating but few of us begrudge food the time it takes to prepare and consume it. Accommodating children's interests also takes times. Yet it nourishes both a child's interest in the world and the relationship between parent and child. It is a marvelous investment of time.
Combining this principle with empathy It's easy to imagine a child in a toy store or ice cream shop asking for more than we should provide. Helping them get what they want doesn't mean that there are no boundaries. The boundary is adult wisdom. We help them get what they want in a way that our adult wisdom knows to be sensible. And we do it with compassion.
For example, the child who may want one scoop of every kind of ice cream has an understandable—but un-grantable—wish. So we say, “Wouldn't that be great! Imagine having one scoop of each flavor! That would be yummy! Today we can each have two scoops. Which two would you like today?” It will not surprise us if the child reiterates an interest in having a scoop of every flavor. That's pretty normal. We don't have to talk the child out of the preference. No judgment or lecture is needed. We simply repeat our earlier statement. If the child stubbornly holds to the resolve to try them all, we can say, “I can see that you really want all the flavors. I think I'll order my two scoops. Please let me know when you've decided which two you want.”
Delicate tasks A child who wants to examine a vase might be allowed to sit on the sofa while we bring it to her. But there are some things we don't allow children to do. We might allow them to look at (without touching) delicate blown glass. But if a task is unsafe or a set-up for failure, we offer what we can but we do not ignore our better judgment. For example, we would not let a young child fry chicken in hot oil, operate a chainsaw, or start a campfire. Sometimes we must say, “Someday you will be able to do that. Right now we need an adult to do it.”
An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of lecture. Picture a child at a family party. While people are visiting, the child becomes entranced with a frosted cake on the table. An attentive parent will notice the gathering storm. Is threatening the child about the dire consequences of touching the cake likely to be effective? What is the likely result?
What could parents do that might be more effective?
It depends. The best solution to any problem always depends on many things. For example:
If the child has not had dinner, the best solution may be to get her some dinner.
It the child is easily distracted, you might get her busy helping out.
If the child is very focused, the cake may need to be moved to a higher place.
Maybe it is time to cut the cake for everyone. (The child is not the only one who is eyeing the cake!)
If it is not time to cut the cake, maybe some other treat could be offered the child.
There is no one simple, universal answer. The best solution depends on the child's personality and hunger as well as the plan for the party.
An adolescent example Imagine that you have an early or middle adolescent child. The child asks to go to a school dance. You are not sure that the child is ready for all the decisions that must be made to successfully navigate the social world of a school dance. You could offer an alternative. “I'm not comfortable with you going to the dance. How do you feel about inviting some of your friends over here for a party?”
Our job is to help the child get the social experience that she wants but within the bounds that parental wisdom dictates. Our adolescent may counter, “Dad, I'm going to be with my friends whom you know well. And I'll be home by 10 p.m. Won't you trust me?”
How should a parent respond?
That depends. If your experience with that child is that he or she is reliable and trustworthy, you might decide to let him or her go. The key issue is not whether you want to be a cool parent. The key issue is the growth and well-being of your child. If you remain uncomfortable, you return to the party offer.
Building character Helping children develop involves more than helping them make good decisions about attics, ice cream, and dances. What are some of the rituals and traditions you have built into your family that help children know your values and respect moral heroes?
What are some traditions that other families have used that might be adapted for your family?
Some people gather their families in the morning for sharing. When children are young, the parents might tell a story about a family hero whether Moses, Mother Teresa, or a grandparent. The celebration of character helps children develop a sense of the noble and fine.
Some families take time at dinner every day or weekly to have each family member share their best experience of the day. In the process family members learn about the good in each person's experience.
Make a plan that works for you.
If reflection works for you, set a time for additional thinking. Think about your opportunities to help your children grow and make plans to help them in wise ways.
If you learn well from wise friends or professional helpers, make a specific plan to get input from them:
If you benefit from self-help aids, here are some recommendations:
Haim Ginott Between Parent and Child
Haim Ginott Between Parent and Teenager
Size of contribution: medium to high