It’s a familiar scene: The parent sets a limit, gets some pushback, then some more, then 30 seconds later realizes the stance made no sense. A reversal is called for, but the fear is that it will signal weakness, which the kid will smell, store away, and leverage with more volume in about two hours. The parent decides to stick to the original directive and stay in the hole as it gets deeper and deeper.
There are a few reasons for the dynamic, some understandable, some self-inflicted. It’s impossible to consider every word before it comes out. Kids develop rapidly; what was reasonable two weeks ago may no longer apply. Parents work long hours and don’t want to be a hardass with their limited play time. Technology further exacerbates distractions. And finally, in exchange for being less of a “Because I said so” parent, there’s more discussion and less certainty of who’s actually in charge, says Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears.
While non-negotiable limits always have to exist, Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a professor of child psychology at Harvard and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center says that being able to change course midsentence is a necessary tool for parents. More than a means of survival, it’s the most effective way to model the whole intent of the actual limit, namely, how to be less emotional, more thoughtful, and ultimately that changing one’s mind isn’t fatal.
Best of all, it doesn’t have to be difficult or big production. The key element to maintaining authority, per Cohen, is that whatever’s said needs to reflect new thinking. Some version of, “Good point. I didn’t consider that,” shows dad as a flexible, fair-minded guy. Another phrase, “Let me think about what I just learned and get back to you,” per Sparrow reflects a commitment to being open, without making any promises. The delay simply ensures consequences aren’t diminished. The added benefit is that it puts a responsibility on the child to be a better reporter. Rather than give the vague “I’m going out by myself”, which will get a quick “No” the next time, he might say, “I just want to sit on the steps and wait for you,” and be met with, “Sounds good.”
The other part is that the mid-sentence switch doesn’t have to mean a change of opinion, merely a change in the kind of conversation. For example, the 5-year-old wants to ride his bike to school, but his younger brother has to come along in his stroller. There’s a standoff, and letting him ride cannot be an option. The inclination is to push back, but just saying, “Obviously this is really important to you,” might not short-circuit the emotion. It does, per Sparrow, shift the tone, and with a little thinking and asking, the parent can discover, “Oh, you want some wheels as well. How about you ride home from school?” Such a response isn’t about negotiating or caving, but about finding a solution that worked for everybody. “You’re not desperate to make him happy, but you are interested in listening to him,” Cohen says.
There are good reasons to have to change positions. Kids’ newfound abilities to swim, walk across the street, or operate a toaster can appear without warning. It’s impossible to foresee every moment — “autopilot is a default parental setting,” Cohen says — but if a parent regularly has to walk back his words, something is off. There’s a lack of paying attention or a fear of the child being upset. “No” becomes a reflex or an overall bias. Either way, the child will eventually stop listening. “There needs to be yeses in the bank,” Sparrow says.
To break the “no” habit, Cohen says to regularly schedule five minutes one hour every day or week where “yes” is the answer to whatever the child wants, barring extreme danger or expense. Treat the time like food or water, never to be earned, lost, or withheld. Again, the connection is being strengthened, and the child accepts that there are places where he’s in control of the world and where he’s not. The time also allows the parent to self-monitor the use of “no”. “In the past, it was, ‘No and shut up,’” Cohen says. “But now, it’s, ‘No and I’ll listen to you.’ It’s the new package deal.”