There are so many reasons why kids refuse to do what you tell them: There’s the obvious (“I’m a kid.”); the more nuanced (“You didn’t say please.”); and finally the reasonable (“I’m pooping standing up.”). But the main one comes down to the fact that they don’t like to be told what to do. Doling out orders makes your self-respecting kid push back, so Jennifer Lehr, author of Parent Speak: What’s Wrong With How We Speak To Our Children — And What To Say Instead, says try a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
In her manifesto against the parent-speak, Lehr refers to catchphrase parenting. These are tried-and-true phrases like “Good job,” “Who’s my big boy/girl,” or “Do you want a spanking?” But she explains that the key to getting children to do what you want — while raising them to be emotionally balanced — is to respect their feelings, be compassionate, and think back to when you were bossed around. “The trick to getting their cooperation is to make them feel invested in the outcome,” says Lehr.
Ask Rather Than Tell
Standing at their door and demanding “Clean this room now!” isn’t the best motivator, says Lehr. For one thing, your kid may not feel like doing it without having mentally prepped for it. For another, they may actually prefer that their personal space looks as if C4 was detonated.
The better approach? Ask your kids how and when they want to go about cleaning their room: I wonder what we can do to get this room more organized? Or make a game of it if you must. You’re clear about what you want to happen, but allow your kids to feel included in the decision-making process. And that makes all the difference. That, and a Dustbuster.
Don’t Evaluate. Appreciate.
The problem with overpraising your kid using mundane catchphrases like Good job! or Great work! is that they’ll soon grow staler than Dane Cook’s last special. “Such phrases are also inherently judgmental and signal that every single thing is up for criticism and has to be evaluated,” says Lehr. “So instead of just living and enjoying each other, it becomes, Am I living up to my parents’ standards?” That kind of pressure can make children feel anxious, as though they always have to do something to please their parents. “And that can lead to becoming a people pleaser, which is a terrible way to live,” says Lehr. It’s much better to appreciate a child’s effort with specific examples; i.e. pointing out the well-executed shading or unusual color selections in their drawings of you. (You never knew you could rock puce.)
Respect Their Bodies And Space
Inevitably, there’ll be a moment when they refuse to hug their little sister or kiss grandma. “But that’s okay,” says Lehr. She insists that “forcing children to be affectionate when they’re not ready sends multiple messages. That the way other people feel is more important than how they feel; that grown-ups are very fragile; that they have to use their bodies in ways others expect of them to make them happy.”
When you send that message over and over your kid “will take that into their adult lives and may feel obligated to go further on a date than they feel comfortable,” warns Lehr. The key here is to talk it out with your child. Ask how they can make their sister or grandma feel welcome without a PDA? Maybe it’s a secret handshake. Maybe it’s a Harry & David’s fruit basket. Let them figure it out.
Treat Your Baby Like A Human Being
As soon as your baby comes home from the hospital, Lehr says you should start speaking to them with a sense of dignity. The idea is to respect their physicality and treat them like a human being. After all, they have feelings, thoughts, and interests — it just so happens those interests include making fists and gettin’ that boob.
“So many people will just pick a baby up like it’s a bag of groceries,” says Lehr “But the child may have been staring at something and learning about the world at the moment.” She says that if you’re picking a child up you can say, “I’m going to pick you up now.” Then put your arms out and pause for a second. In time they will get to know what you mean and put their arms forward to participate in the lift.”
Don’t Tell Your Toddler How They Should Feel
When your kid takes a face-plant in the park, throw out those clichés: You’re fine. Brush it off. Rub some dirt in it. You know the difference between a major injury and a minor fall, but they don’t. The better move is to comfort them, ask them how they feel, what hurts and where, and then reassuring them. Saying they’re fine first can come off as dismissive.
“From an evolutionary standpoint we wouldn’t still have feelings if they weren’t important,” says Lehr, “so they’re telling us something. If you suppress feelings, stress builds in the body. So when you say You’re okay, you’re really missing an opportunity to connect with your kids.”
This may seem like parenting heresy, but Lehr says putting kids in timeout (which she calls“our generation’s kinder, gentler spanking”) can cause all manner of abandonment issues that erode a child’s self-esteem. It’s like getting voted off the island on Survivor except there’s no awesome torch-snuffing ceremony.
“Putting them in timeout tells a child that unless you can be perfect you can’t be around me,” says Lehr. “It also tells them that they have to solve the problem on their own and feel bad about themselves.” A much better approach? Help your child reflect on their behavior: Why are you behaving this way? What’s bothering you? What is it that you really want? Placing a kid in timeout can be a convenient way of shirking your big responsibility: helping your kids examine their feelings.