Here’s a good piece from Slate.com by Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella that asks the question:
If you are a good parent who is patient, explains things to your kids, sets good examples, uses a system of rewards and punishments to teach your children and they refuse to learn and actively resist, then what do you do? In short, behavioral psychologists suggest that increasingly urgent parental pleadings can, at some point, become counterproductive. A child’s defiance to a desperate plea is actually normal, they say. A simple but effective Plan B, therefore, is to simply back off from encouraging your kids to eat vegetables, taking baths, or using the potty and within a couple of days in a climate of reduced pressure and pleading, they will do it on their own.
Seems plausible to me, but I don’t think the ignore-it-and-it-will-happen-eventually approach should become a parent’s go-to move. In fairness, neither does the article. In my judgment, there are at least three other options to consider for the toughest cases and that I detailed in a post on disciplining that I wrote some time ago:
- The no negotiation approach. This approach must start early (at 1 to 2 years old) and requires parents to be fairly inflexible, including sticking to your guns even if it means ruining an outing or leaving a fun activity before you are ready. In this approach, kids are told what is expected of them, given multiple opportunities to do it on their own (accompanied by gradually increasing punishments), and finally are forced to take a bath, eat their peas, or whatever. Once the kids learn that negotiations are not possible, they will comply with parental requests with a minimum of fuss after learning the hard way that resistance is futile. The downside is that this can lead to a contest of wills between parents and child that are more prolonged than simply a negotiated solution. But once you go down the negotiations path, everything becomes subject to negotiation and it is difficult to lay down the law.
- Putting your kids’ fate in their own hands. This involves some creative thought on Mom and Dad’s part to come up with a system of rewards and punishments in which a stubborn child’s resistance is used against them. In this case, for example, you don’t send your child to ‘time out’ for 10 minutes, but rather send them to ‘time out’ with instructions to the child that they can come out anytime they please, as long as they are ready to comply with Mom’s demands. Again, this approach can be effective over time but in the beginning is likely to lead to prolonged confrontations until your stubborn child realizes the only way out is to abandon their own hard-headedness.
- Offer more ‘thank you’s and explanations. I am not suggesting that getting tougher and more inflexible is always the best way. I find that in the heat of the moment, parents are quick to criticize and slow to praise. In fact, often parents forget to say ‘thank you’ because they feel that eating vegetables and taking baths is what kids are supposed to do and doesn’t deserve its own recognition. I differ. I think that parents need to vigorously discourage bad behavior and owe their kids an explanation of why something is bad. By the same token, parents need to say ‘thank you’ for good behavior and offer an explanation of why Mommy is happy that the child finally agreed to finish their plate of carrots. Kids are usually eager to please their parents and hearing praise and getting a hug is likely to lead to repeats of that type of behavior.
This leads me to a second point I made last week in a post here; that the key to effective parenting is time to rest. The article says:
When a parent encounters stress at work or elsewhere outside the home, her tone of voice and commands to her children are affected. The voice is slightly more pressed, slightly more impatient. The child, reacting, engages in slightly more defiant behavior and is slightly more oppositional. The two responses reinforce each other, and conflict escalates from there. When the parent’s stress is reduced, the child’s behavior returns to the less defiant and oppositional mode.
That last sentence says it all for me. I wrote that my worst moments as a parent have come not when my children were tired but when I was tired. And that means that, for example, there is nothing wrong with letting the TV babysit your child while you grab a 15-minute nap. You may feel guilty, but it is worth it if you can wake up refreshed and able to be a parent that provides a stimulating and low-stress environment for your children to grow and learn.