Yesterday I came across this Motherlode guest blog written by a mother who, after years of waking to a little nightly visitor, decided it was time to take some action to get her six-year old son to sleep through the night in his own bed. Her solution was to bribe him (her words) with a dollar a day, which worked like a charm. She, her husband, and her son were all happy and well rested. A good story with a happy ending, right? Well, not according to many of the commenters who read her post. While some gave her kudos for finding a solution they could all live with, others told her she was crazy — that no should mean no. Some wondered how she would be able to end the incentive, others wondered what her son would expect from her in his teenage years, and others bragged of how they oblivious to the cries and manipulation of their much younger children and would never have to resort to such pathetic parenting tactics. As usual, I was more interested in the responses to the article than the article itself. I thought about my own response, which was intially to think, good for her — they found something that worked, and they were happy! The diversity of comments got me wondering what really is the best way to deal with tough issues like this, whether it be sleep, food, or any other hot-button issue that can become a power struggle between parents and kids.
From what I could tell from the comments, there are three types of parents out there: the ones that will use whatever technique works to get a desired behavior, those that want to avoid power struggles but don’t use techniques that may cause further behavior problems down the road, and parents that believe in “no means no”, no matter what. I can see where they’re all coming from, but think that the best way to deal with behavior issues is probably a combination of all three. There are definitely times when no has to mean no, and a parent’s word is just the way it’s going to be. I think this technique is best saved for issues of safety, when the rules of the universe are there to back you up. For instance, if your baby wants to play with the kitchen knives, no is just going to mean no. As they get older, they can understand the explanation that goes with it — the kitchen knives may look like fun, but they can hurt you, so they are going to stay in their drawer, and baby is not going to go near them. The reason I think this technique should be reserved for special circumstances it doesn’t give baby any choice or power in it, something that even the littlest people need. No one wants to be ordered around all the time, without any choices in their life. If the “no means no” is saved for appropriate occasions, then at least baby has occasions to exercise their own choice, and can trust that a matter of no negotiation is truly important.
On the other end of the extreme from “no means no” is doing whatever it takes to get the desired behavior. I think this, too, has a place in a parent’s toolbox, but should be used sparingly. In our family, the anything goes technique was used in longer car trips to calm our screaming son. He wants chocolate? Give it to him. Done with the chocolate and wants to throw goldfish? Fine. Whatever we had to do to get from point A to B without a splitting headache was going to happen. The reason we had to resort to this was because there really weren’t any other options. We couldn’t rock him. We couldn’t offer him something else to do. He was stuck in the carseat, and we were stuck listening to his unhappiness. If there was anything else we could do though, it probably wouldn’t have been such a free-for-all.
In between the two extremes is the most room for creativity, but also the most effort. It’s coming up with a way to shape behavior that is age and developmentally appropriate, doesn’t set off a power struggle, and also helps shape the child into the adult we want them to become. My absolute favorite example of this comes from “Adventures in Gentle Discipline” by Hilary Flower. It’s one of the many stories from parents who found creative ways to deal with discipline issues. This one was written by a mother who’s 2-year-old daughter refused to sit in the shopping cart at the supermarket. A parent using the “no means no” technique would just force the girl to sit, and deal with whatever screaming/fussing/pouting resulted. A parent who lets anything go would let her out of the cart and run around to do whatever she wanted, as long as she stopped fussing. This mother instead thought about why her daughter didn’t want to be in the cart, and she realized it was because she wanted to help with the shopping. So the two went outside, where there were little carts for children to push around. The mother explained that her daughter would be able to push her own cart and help with the shopping as long as she followed the rules: daughter could touch what she wanted, but not pick up things and put them in the cart, unless there was something that mother specifically said she could not touch, and daughter could only put things in the cart when mother said it was ok. If daughter decided that she didn’t want to follow the rules, then she would have to sit in mother’s shopping cart and would not be able to help anymore. The rules worked, and mother and daughter were able to get through the shopping trip without a power struggle, and without tearing up the store.
There are so many ways to deal with discipline issues, and it’s important that they’re dealt with. Children need boundaries, and parents need children to have boundaries. Finding ways to deal with them with respect, compassion, and recognition of a child’s need to grow and have responsibility is always a challenge, especially in a culture where children are still regarded as being at their best when they’re seen and not heard. Children are people too, and I just don’t believe that little ones do the things they do to be manipulative. They are just trying to assert their independence and find their little piece of the world, and it’s our job as parents to help them do that safely and appropriately. While it can be a big effort at times, I think the reward for creative discipline is children that are self-disciplined and eager to take on responsibility for themselves. Isn’t that what we all want in the end?