Not too long ago, I was standing in line at CVS. In front of me, stood a beautiful young mom and a precious little boy. I’m guessing he was 5 years old. As the mom placed the contents of her basket on the counter to pay, the little boy turned on the charm and asked:
“Mommy, can I have these toy cars as a souvenir?”
He stretched out his hands to show her the treasures he’d found in the toy aisle while she was doing her shopping.
“Well if I buy you these toy cars, then you won’t be able to buy anything as a souvenir at Disney World, so you’ll have to choose. The cars now or a souvenir at Disney World later this week.”
“I want the cars,” he said.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I don’t want you throwing a fit at Disney World if you find something else you want once we get there.”
“I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”
And then there was a long pause.
The mom looked at the little boy. The little boy looked at the mom. And the cashier and I stared at both of them, wondering what would happen next.
Finally, the mom said, “No. I’m not buying you these cars. Take them and put them back where you found them.”
“No!” he shouted. And then the temper tantrum ensued. The next thing I knew, he was on the ground, limbs flailing everywhere, and screaming at a level that I was quite sure could have shattered glass.
My ear drums rang to the familiar sound.
I gave the mom my best smile of solidarity to tell her that I, too, had been there. In public, nonetheless. And more than once. As she took a deep breath, she calmly took the toy cars out of her little boy’s hand, put them back in the toy aisle, and “escorted” him out of the store.
Ya’ll, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Like I was watching myself interact with one of my own deranged animals.
I mean, kids.
Maybe not in this context exactly because I have about zero trouble telling my kids “no” at the store (just call me stingy). But certainly in other scenarios. How many times have I given my kids the freedom to choose when, truthfully, I wasn’t OK with one or more of the choices I was offering?
Too many to count. I can tell you that.
Like the time I told my daughter to go pick out “any” outfit to wear to the grocery store, and in 30 degree weather, she bounded down the stairs in a tank top and leggings. (After some back and forth bickering, I sent her outside and locked the door behind her to prove my point. Awesome parenting right there, but she eventually left the house with a coat and some gloves.)
Or the time my son was acting up at a social event Kory and I really wanted to attend, and I told him that he could choose to start behaving or I’d take him home. He asked me to take him home. (Of course he did.)
These things happen all the time.
This mom’s instinct to not buy the toy cars was spot on. She knew that if she bought him the toy cars now, one of two things would likely happen at Disney World.
She would stand her ground, a temper tantrum would ensue, and unnecessary stress (and obedience issues) would arise during family vacation because her child would be crushed for the fact that he wasn’t able to have the Pluto plush toy, Mickey T-shirt, and bag of gems from the Seven Dwarves Mine Train that he so desperately wanted. (Not that I have any personal experience with the souvenir hunt at Disney World.)
Or she would cave to his persistent begging (and his endless charm) and purchase souvenirs in both places. Exactly the opposite of what she said she would do.
But because she gave him the choice, she found herself in a difficult spot. One that she could only get out of by exasperating her child and exercising physical control over him all the way out of the store.
So what’s the alternative? How can we navigate these scenarios with our kids in a more effective way?
Through my own trial and error, and some study along the way, my personal experience has taught that there are, indeed, certain rules of engagement for communicating with young children. This is particularly true in the areas of choices and instructions. Here’s what I’ve learned.
When offering young children choices, we must choose wisely. Both the circumstances in which we afford them the freedom to choose and the choices that we make available to them. It is critical that choices be given during circumstances in which we have the time to manage the process and our children have the wherewithal to make decisions. For instance, extending choices to our children when we’re running late or they’re exhausted from the day’s activities, may not be the wisest idea. (Believe me. I’ve made both mistakes.) Further, we should only offer a range of choices that are acceptable to us. So in the wardrobe example above, I could have given my daughter two outfit choices, both of which were appropriate for the winter weather we were experiencing that day.
There are times for questions. And there are times for direction. Both are appropriate in the lives of young children for sure, but it’s critical that we know the difference. In circumstances where a “no” response to a question is not acceptable, we should not set our children up to fail by asking them. Instead, we should direct them towards the behavior that we need from them.
“Would you please go upstairs and get your jammies on for nap time?” could be rephrased as a statement: “It is time for nap. Let’s go upstairs and get your jammies on.” The former is likely to invite a “no” response, which creates an entirely different problem than just getting them down for a nap. (A problem that can be epic all by itself.) But the latter is a directive. It doesn’t invite a conversation or negotiation about when nap time will occur or whether it will occur at all.
When we make the mistake of giving choices that aren’t acceptable, or we ask a question when we should have been more direct, we usually know it immediately after the words pass from our lips. Because we elicit a response from our children that makes our hair stand on end. And this is going to happen. Because even the most well-prepared parents are still human.I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes all day long.
So what do we do? In these circumstances, I’ve learned to live into God’s grace. I try to quickly own my mistake and fix it. I might say something like, “You know what? Mommy made a mistake. Let me rephrase that.” And then I try again. The right way. While this isn’t bullet-proof, I’ve found that my children are pretty forgiving and that this is generally more effective than the power struggle that will come when I attempt to “twist their arm” for a better response.
When all else fails, and we do find ourselves in a power struggle with our children, we can take a note from the mom at CVS. She remained calm. She spoke in a firm, but loving tone. She drew the needed boundary. She graciously dealt with the consequences. And my guess is? She probably learned something in the process. May we all approach the tough spots of training young children with such grace and style!
What have you learned about communicating well with your children?