Lately, my kids fight me on everything -- whether it's doing homework or helping clear the table. They know they have to do these things, but they still argue and give me a hard time. Why can't they just say “OK” when I ask them to do something?
Dear Exhausted Referee,
Stop for a moment, and think about the times when your kids have been happy to cooperate. Recall a specific instance when you asked one of your children to pick up his or her toys or feed the dog and, instead of negotiating, he or she simply said, “OK.”
What was going on between you in terms of closeness and connection? Had you recently spent time together, just the two of you? Had you shared a joke, or a game of checkers? If you were to take a video of the events leading up to your child saying, “Sure, I'll feed the dog,” chances are it would show that you’d recently done something to help him know that you like him, and like being around him.
This is the essence of what makes cooperation happen: the sense that we feel internally motivated to please someone because we feel seen, valued and cherished by that person.
In fact, this goes far beyond the parent-child relationship; we are all wired to resist being bossed around outside of attachment. It's Mother Nature's way of keeping us safe from harmful outside influences.
So if your children are routinely defiant, I do not advise you to craft more tempting bribes or scarier threats. Instead, I encourage you to address the issue at its root, by fortifying the connection you have with each of your children so that they're more naturally inclined to do what you ask.
Here are a few of the many ways in which you can strengthen the sense of attachment that motivates kids to cooperate:
- Take each of your kids out for a special lunch or dinner, one-on-one. Sure, you may have lots of meals together in between school pick-up and soccer practice, but make this a parent/child "date" that tells each of your children how much you value personal time with them.
- Take a child on an unexpected adventure to a place neither of you have been before. Walk in a new neighborhood. Explore a nearby lake or park. New experiences are powerful ways to create more closeness.
- Choose an activity that your child has a particular interest in, and set aside a monthly time to work on that activity together. Whether it's a cooking class you take with your son who's a budding chef, or a mother/daughter book club that you create with some of your daughter's friends, joining a child in pursuing one of his or her interests is a wonderful way to reinforce closeness.
- When an unexpected pause appears in your day, invite your kids to share a joke-telling session. Sing karaoke. Have a dance party. The more fun you bring into your children's lives, the less inclined they'll be to say “No!” when you ask them to do those less enjoyable tasks.
Don't get me wrong; kids are kids, and they like having fun. Most of the things we ask them to do aren't fun, and require that they stop doing something they're enjoying.
But when children know that they're ultimately going to have to do their homework or clean up their toys — in other words, when you have rituals and routines in place — they will be less likely to pitch a fit if there is an underlying feeling of closeness between the two of you.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.