March 06, 2007

Deciding What You Want

The farther I go down this trail of attempting to help parents to raise self-reliant children who are capable of making great decisions, the more I find a common thread among parents who are experiencing difficulties. The common thread that I find is simply that most parents who are experiencing difficulties because they are attempting to raise children without a plan. Most of the time when I ask them, “what do you want your child to do? What is your long range goal for your child’s behavior?” that is when I discover the root of their problem.

Parents Can't MAKE Children Behave

As a parent, once you have accepted the fact that you have no direct control over your children's behavior, and once you have accepted your role as a guide to the decisions your child will make, then it is time to move on to the next step; deciding exactly what you want your children to do. Without that clear picture of the end result, it is really difficult to guide your children. When you have a clear idea of what it is you want, your strategy for helping them use their own abilities to select the desired behavior often becomes very obvious. Let's move on to an understanding of this simple concept.

Demanding Obedience Rarely Works!

So often our model of how to work with our children's behavior is to demand obedience. Obedience is, for a number of reasons, a very dangerous control mechanism to use to manipulate a child's actions.

First, obedience is very unreliable because, at any time, your child may choose to be disobedient… and then your “obedience strategy” will just fail. The parent must have a goal. Having a goal requires that the parent teach before the child is in the situation.

A Frustrated Father

Golly, just yesterday I had a conversation with a father who said that he felt that he was spending most of his time telling his children “No!” This father perceived his problem as being that he has a couple of defiant children. He was asking me how to fix his kids. But the person who needed fixing was the dad.

Granted, he may have strong-willed children, (and for that he should be thankful) but his problem was that he had lost sight of his ultimate goal of teaching his children to make good decisions for themselves. He had fallen into the trap of trying to make all of the decisions for his kids! Obedience was just not working for this dad!

“In addition,” the father continued, “it sure seems the chances of my kids being disobedient and defiant increase proportionately with number of people watching, the danger of the moment, and my fatigue and dwindling level of patience!” Then the father added, “If we are at the grocery store and I am tired, it seems a certainty that my kids will have to be told NO even more often.” The father offered all of this to me in his explanation/question about his kids. My answer was an attempt to make a change in the father’s approach. His “obedience strategy” was not working because his children were choosing to disobey.

Like I said, obedience does not work because it often does not have a clearly defined goal or end result. Most of the time it is simply just crisis management! Without a clearly defined goal the father in this case was simply reacting to his children’s actions.

Second, obedience teaches children to listen to an "outside voice" to make adjustments in their behavior. Rather than being self-directed, children wait for parents to direct them. In the case of this father, he was teaching his children to listen to his voice to make their decisions. The only lesson that his kids were getting about making their own decisions was whether to obey or disobey dad!! He did not set out with this as his goal, but it sure was the lesson that his children were learning! It sounded to me like his children had even learned when it worked best to choose to disobey!

Also, teaching kids to listen to your voice and your instructions only works when you are physically present. Most children raised in this “do-it-because-I-said-so” manner often have some real trouble when their parents are not right there with them. They will be lost without that constant "No!" hanging over their heads.
Obedience Cannot Work if the "Voice" Is Not There

And think about this for a minute; when children make most of their really big decisions you will not be there! You will not be able to make the big decisions for your children. Then in the absence of your voice, your child will listen to the next loudest voice. Often that next loudest voice is saying, "Come on, chicken, try this!"

Finally, obedience does not teach children how to make decisions. Let them learn to make decisions in the same manner you would teach them to ride a bike. Put them on the seat put the handlebars in their hands and give them a shove! Now, granted, it may not be that simple with the teaching of bike riding. Often you must run along side to steady them for awhile. Sometimes it may be necessary to put on some training wheels and then gradually raise them so that the child gets the feeling of balancing on two wheels. But, ultimately, the teacher must at some time let go.

The same is true when we teach decision-making. It may not be as simple as just giving some brief instructions and then letting go. We must give them some guidelines on how to make decisions and then let them make some. If they make mistakes, do just as you would with the bike: pick them up, dust them off, and put them back on the bike with some additional guidance on how to ride. But, let them try riding again!
It would be a rare child who could actually learn to ride a bike by watching their Mom or Dad ride one or listening to their parents talk about how to ride one.
I received a wonderful piece of instruction as I was learning to operate a computer a few years ago. People would try to teach me by having me watch them do things and watch them give commands to a computer. I could not learn that way. They had to let me sit down and put my hands on the keyboard and the buttons. Once I did that, I would learn quite rapidly. Children are the same. Most of the time they need to actually DO things in order to learn.

The same is true for making good decisions and choices; kid must be given chances to make choices and decisions. "Put them on the bike!" Let them learn from doing. Let them make a few small mistakes and learn from them. Give them instructions before they get into the situations and then let them act. If you are goingto the grocery store, practice appropriate behavior BEFORE you take them to the store. Then, when you get to the store, let them choose their actions. If they make good choices, thereward is that they made good choices and you all stay at the store doing as you planned. If they make bad choices let them experience theresults of their decisions. Just leave the store with no explanation. Your actions will teach more than any words could.

Caution: There are a few situations where you do not let kids learn from mistakes. If it is 1. illegal, 2. immoral or 3. life-threatening you must act as the adult in the situation and intervene. If a child makes these types of mistakes, the risk is too high and the stakes are too great, thus it may require a much more invasive technique of intervention and protection.
But do make the mistake of thinking that intervening or being invasive has taught anything!
The best policy is to stay in the prevention mode and help them to make good decisions before the fact, so that they don't get into illegal, immoral or life threatening situations in the first place.

So, as parents, let's approach the job of teaching children to make good decisions by crowding out obedience as our goal. By having other reasonable goals, you will teach your children to be increasingly self-directed and self-reliant. With a clear goal of teaching sound decision-making skills you, as a parent, will begin to experience success. You will have killed two birds with one stone. Your children will have reasonable limits on their behavior and of far more importance, they will be growing in their ability to make good decisions; good decisions they will continue to make even when they are out of your presence.

1 comment:

paddyl said...


Since I brought you in as our keynote speaker to Macomb County, MI., you never cease to amaze me. I've read so many books on discipline and taught so many parenting classes over the last 20 years, and here you are giving explanations of why punishment doesn't work in a way that is clear and in such a dignified way that it truly gives me hope that any parent that reads it will be inspired to change. I feel so blessed to know you and every parents needs to hear your inspirational talks! Your friend, Paddy