Don't Use The Force

Get Your Kid To Behave Without Resorting To Time-Outs, Sticker Charts, Or Bribes

You may be laboring under the delusion that making your kid sit in the corner or bribing them with “treats” are molding them into model citizen on the playground. The more likely answer is that it’s molding you into a control freak. Ross W. Greene, a clinical child psychologist and author of Raising Human Beings, says that your endless series of carrots and sticks (or, if it’s snack time, carrot sticks) isn’t going to yield the behavior that you want. But treating your parent/child relationship like a collaboration might.

Greene’s theory is that, by solving problems instead of imposing your will, you get rid of the power struggles that make sticker charts and time-outs seem like a good idea. Remember, just like your high school track coach said, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Your Goal Is Influence, Not Control
Greene’s method is based on collaborative problem-solving. The short version is that your goal is not to control your kid’s every move, but to influence their decisions as best you can, and bite your damn tongue when you can’t. How else are they going to learn?

“Being a dad doesn’t have to mean being an all-powerful, all-knowing being,” says Greene. Even though you may have been raised by a father who considered himself God with a chore chart, experts like Greene say that power struggles between parents and kids often make the relationship adversarial. “The more control you seek, the less you have,” he says, while neither confirming or denying that he got that line from Yoda.

Set Clear Expectations  
You only see what you don’t want your kids to be doing. Stop playing with your food. Don’t hit the neighbor-boy. Chainsaws aren’t for juggling. But instead of being reactionary and saying no a few hundred times a day, Greene says to lay out a handful of high-priority expectations, and then communicate how failing that affects people around them.

The more control you seek, the less you have.

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“I look at adults and ask what their expectations are and they have no idea,” Greene says. “Let’s be clear about the expectations in the first place.” For example, using good manners at a restaurant may be a high priority for you. Before they set foot in that high chair, tell them what you expect (like food staying on the table, or a decibel level slightly below jet engine) and how that affects other people (they will forever regret choosing Cheesecake Factory as a romantic night out).

Don’t Solve Problems As They’re Happening
“Nobody does their best thinking in the heat of the moment,” says Greene. “That’s why so many problems stay unsolved. Parents and kids get into conflicts over the same thing every week because they’re dealing with them right then.” Instead of forcing a resolution while you’re pissed off, let the moment pass with minimal conflict. It’s not backing down, it’s deferring until later when everyone is cool again. Which leads to …

Flickr / David Camerer

Flickr / David Camerer

Plan A Time To Work It Out
Put that problem solving time on the books. It should be a moment when your kid’s not in trouble, you’re not mad, and nothing needs to be put out with a fire extinguisher. Give them a heads up and let them know you have some collaborating to do. “Kids love this,” says Greene. “They like getting along with their parents a whole lot better than they like stickers.” (But not puffy stickers.) He says to set up these meetings once a week, or even every day. Consider them a United Nations summit in your living room — but with more at stake.

Get To The Root Of It
Say you have a hard time getting your kid to brush their teeth. You think they’re just being difficult, but perhaps there’s something else going on. “You’re asking for information to understand why it’s hard for them,” says Greene. Maybe the toothbrush hurts their gums. Maybe that Tom’s of Maine toothpaste tastes like bark. Maybe brushing you teeth is just boring as shit. Whatever the situation, he says your job is to find out why they’re not meeting the expectation. And if they’re just being stubborn, tell them about the wonderful world of oral surgery.

Devise a Solution Together
Skee-Lo had success with “I Wish,” but for you it should be, “I wonder.” Greene says to start deploying this phrase — as in, “I wonder if there’s a way we can find a brush or toothpaste you’ll like more” — to include your kid in the decision-making process. Get their suggestions, but be prepared for “How about I don’t brush my teeth?”

“A lot of adults feel pressured to come up with ingenious solutions. That doesn’t serve us well,” says Greene. By getting their feedback you can hopefully find a realistic solution that works for both parties. If the first one doesn’t work, don’t punish them, because you’re equally at fault. Just put the issue back on the dinnertime docket and try again until it’s solved. Nothing working? You may have to pull in a third party mediator. Your kid calls her Mom.

Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene, PhD