Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run.

I’ve been working on this for years.  I’m still not going to claim that I’m really good at it!  But I know it’s true that when I keep my focus on the concrete things that need to happen (instead of on my feelings about those things and all the things I feel are connected to them) and on the concrete consequences of the things getting done or not (instead of on emotional consequences), I’m not only more effective at getting other people to behave usefully but also able to get more things done myself.

What’s the difference between a concrete consequence and an emotional consequence?  A concrete consequence relates to effects of the behavior that anyone can see.  An emotional consequence is about how someone feels about the behavior.   Some behaviors have naturally occurring consequences: If you don’t eat something before we leave, you’re going to be hungry; if you choose not to wear your coat, you might get cold; if you don’t do that homework, you’ll get a bad grade.  Other behaviors don’t have a naturally occurring consequence, but you can come up with one that’s reasonable, like this:

Mom: Towel back in the bathroom please.
Child: [laughing] No!
Mom: When you hang up your towel, then I will read a story.
Child: NO! You do it! [runs off]
[Mom hangs up the towel, then sits quietly reading her own book.  Child comes back with a book.]
Child: I want this story!
Mom: You did not hang up your towel.  I had to hang it up.  Now I am having a story by myself instead of reading to you.
[Child goes into the bathroom, comes back with the towel, and throws it on the floor.]
Mom: That will not get you a story. [calmly turns a page]
Child: But now I’m hanging it up!  See?  [Child takes the towel and hangs it up.]  Come see how I hung it up!
Mom: [still sitting] I’m glad that your towel is hanging up now.  I don’t like how you threw it on the floor.  I don’t like that I had to pick it up the first time.
Child: Now I hung it up!  Now can I have a story?
Mom: You want a second chance to hang up your towel and have a story.  Because you took extra time to hang up the towel, now we only have time for a short story before bed.  We can read one Frog and Toad story.
Child: NO!  I want this story!
Mom: Tomorrow you can choose to hang up your towel right away, and then we will have time for that story.  Tonight, we can read Frog and Toad, or go right to bed.
Child: NO! NO! NO!
Mom: We are running out of time for Frog and Toad.
Child: Oh all right.  But I won’t like it!!
Mom: That’s too bad.  I like Frog and Toad very much.  [Reads the story.]

This basic approach still works on Nick, and it’s beginning to work on my daughter Lydia now that she’s two years old and beginning to negotiate verbally.  It is really, really difficult to keep using my Calm Firm Voice and not let a kid’s behavior unhinge me, especially if he’s doing annoying things like throwing wet towels around the living room!!  But it’s worth it.

Sometimes when I’m seeking a reasonable consequence, it helps to think about how I can adjust it to support my positive emotions in the face of my child’s aggravating behavior and (often) attempts to drag the situation in a negative direction.  For example, if the consequence is that we have time only for a short story, I can pick a story that I like so that I will enjoy reading it even if I’m reading to a stubbornly grumpy child.  If she puts up a token resistance, I can verbally reinforce my choice to enjoy the activity.  (But what if she really objects to Frog and Toad, and she asks for a different story that is similarly short?  It’s best to cooperate with that, and it’s best for me to act positive about that story if I possibly can.  Why?  Because that’s how we’ll get things done.  Having a big argument about which picture book to read is not going to get the kid to sleep on time.)

The dialogue above is my rewrite of a scene another mom posted on a discussion board a while back, asking how she could have handled her child’s defiance better (instead of flipping out and still feeling upset about it hours later).  One of the things that happened in her real-life scene was this:

I snapped at her that I wished she could just once do what I asked.

I understand completely why a parent would say that, and I’ve sometimes said it myself.  But when my partner Daniel snaps this at Nicholas and I’m watching the interaction from the outside, I can see how it only makes things worse:

  1. “I wish” = “I don’t think it’s really going to happen.”
  2. “I wish you could” = “You can’t.  I don’t believe you can.”
  3. “just once” = “Once would be enough for me.  I don’t expect you to cooperate on a regular basis.”
  4. The whole thing = “I don’t care about the times you did do what I asked.  It’s pretty much pointless for you to cooperate, since I don’t notice or remember that you did.”

That one sentence carries a big load of negative expectations!  When I have snapped like this, I try to find a time later, after things have calmed down, when I can mention a time my child did what I asked the first time and how much I liked that.

Sometimes things are going wrong so frequently that it seems we never have a calm time to talk about stuff!  In that case, bringing up the child’s past positive behavior in the middle of a conflict might work, like this:

Mom: Towel back in the bathroom please.
Child: [laughing] No!
Mom: When you hang up your towel, then I will read a story.
Child: NO! You do it! [runs off]
Mom: [follows child, grabs her, gets down to look her in the eyes] Hey.  Remember after lunch, when you put away the ketchup and mustard?
Child: Huh?  Yeah…
Mom: Thank you.  I like when you help.  Now that you are big enough to put some things away, I like you to put things back in their right place after you use them, like you did the ketchup and mustard.
Child: I put them in the refrigerator door.  I know where they go!
Mom: Yes, you do!  And you know where your towel goes.

She may or may not start cooperating at that point.  It’s worth a try!

I find defiance very upsetting, and I don’t know of any way to make a kid stop trying it, but with strategies at least I can keep myself calmer and have some chance of getting him to cooperate.  Again, I’m not perfect, and I often get caught up in the aggravations of the moment and forget to use my strategies.  What I keep learning is that these strategies usually work when I actually use them!

Here are some more scenarios:

At an amusement park, a child asks for caramel corn.  Mom says, “No, let’s choose a healthier snack.”  After being distracted by the other child, she turns around to find that the child’s stepdad has bought him the caramel corn.

This is an issue between mom and stepdad, as well as between mom and son.  The most effective thing to do is to address it immediately with both of them.  (If you just sigh and roll your eyes and try to get on with the day, it’s likely to keep bothering you, and meanwhile they’re likely to do other things you don’t want because you’ve shown that you didn’t really mean what you said.)

Mom to son: “Hey!  I said to choose a healthier snack.  You know you were not supposed to have that caramel corn.  When I say no, that means no.  It doesn’t mean ask other people until you find someone who says yes.”

Mom to stepdad: “I wish you hadn’t bought that for him.  I guess you didn’t hear me say no.”  (If he tells you he did hear you but thought you were wrong, and launches into a whole thing about how you never let the kid have any fun…stop him ASAP and say you’ll discuss it privately later.  Make sure you do.  Work out a policy about healthy snacks vs. treats that both of you agree to follow on future outings.)

We don’t waste food.  Let him keep the caramel corn but explain that there will be no more sweets today, only healthy snacks.  Then stick to it.  Even if the whole rest of the family gets ice cream cones later, he doesn’t get one, because he already had his treat.

Sometimes when Nicholas has gotten a treat I told him he couldn’t have, after I’ve spelled out for him what happened, he finds that the treat seems not to taste so good after all.  I try to talk about that the way Mister Rogers would: “When I said no but you got it anyway, that made a bad feeling.  Now the bad feeling gets in the way of enjoying the treat.”  I might just go with, “Hmm, it’s not so tasty as you thought it would be.”  I don’t have to hammer on the point to get across that this is something to think about next time he’s tempted.

Sometimes he’ll offer to share the treat or give me the rest, and I make sure to praise his generosity.  I won’t eat it if I truly don’t want to, but I try to refuse graciously instead of being nasty about how I would never eat such crap.  If it turns out that he ate a very small fraction of the treat, I take that into consideration when deciding about the next treat opportunity–but I don’t mention it until then, and if he immediately starts trying to negotiate with it (“Since I shared most of my caramel corn, can I have soda at lunch, and can I have cotton candy later?”) I shut that down quickly, reminding him that he wasn’t supposed to get the caramel corn and I want him to remember that.

A child asks what is in a package in the car.  Mom says, “That is for Daddy.  Leave it alone.”  Thirty seconds later, the child has unwrapped the object and is waving it around and asking questions about it.

Take it away immediately.  Say, “I told you: It’s not yours.  It’s Daddy’s.  Leave it alone.”  Respond to any further protests by repeating these three sentences like a broken record.

There are two reasons for the low-information, broken-record response: It maintains the limit that you set (the contents of the package are not the child’s business; you do not owe him an explanation), and it stops you from ranting and raving about how you told him to leave it alone but he never listens and he’s such a brat and so on.  That kind of harangue will just make both of you angrier, so stick to the basic facts instead.

The best thing to do if you really don’t want him investigating something is to put it where he can’t get it and can’t see it anymore–but when you are away from home, driving or walking around, distracted by another child, etc., that might not be possible.

While the family is playing, a child hits his mother.  Mom says, “That was not a nice thing to do.  You cannot be hitting people.”  Then she resumes playing.  Minutes later, he hits her again, harder.

I think that his repeated hitting indicates how ineffective her response was.  Instead…

Yelp in pain.  Give him a very wounded look like you just can’t believe he would do such a thing to you.  Don’t speak to him for a moment.  He might take this opportunity to apologize.  If so, accept the apology, but don’t act like that makes everything instantly better.  Say something like, “Thanks….  It really hurts.  I’m going to put some ice on it.”

If at all possible, make his violent act disrupt what is happening.  (Obviously, if he hits you while you’re packing the diaper bag before racing out to catch a bus to the airport, you can’t just stop.  But if you’re playing, stop.)  Do something to treat your injury, or just say, “I need to rest until it stops hurting,” and move aside holding the injured part and looking sad.  If a younger child is present, take her away with you and explain to her, “When someone is hitting, we move away.  We don’t want to play a game where anyone gets hit.”

Avoid speaking too generally: “You cannot be hitting people.”  Focus on how he hurt you and show him that it hurts your body and hurts your feelings.  (This isn’t an excuse to go into a screaming rage, sobbing tantrum, or other overwhelming expression of emotion–just show that your feelings get hurt when a person you trust chooses to hurt you.)

When your child lashes out at you, whether physically or verbally, it’s important to resist escalating the situation.  If she hit you, don’t hit her back harder.  If he pulled your hair, don’t slam his head against the wall.  If she used a nasty disrespectful voice to you, don’t respond in a louder and ruder tone.  Again, this is hard when you’re really aggravated!  Try to remember that you’re the adult (even when your child is not giving you the respect you deserve…) and you need to set the tone, turn down the volume, take off the gloves, show her how it’s done.

A child has had a really bad day, getting into trouble over and over again.  Finally he is sent to bed without a story.  After crying for a long time, he calls his mother into his room.  He says he’s sorry he overreacts all the time and doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions.  He asks for a story.  Mom says, “No.  Go to sleep now,” and leaves the room.  The child comes downstairs twice, getting toys to take to bed with him.  Mom says, “I told you it’s bedtime!  If you come down one more time, you’re grounded!”

He should not get a story.  His earlier misbehavior used up the story time, and if you take away that consequence, he’ll be motivated to stay up late trying to talk you into a story the next time you impose this consequence.

But!  Stay and talk with him about how to deal with his emotions.  Teach him the song “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?” which suggests some safe ways to act out your feelings.  Tell him some things you do when you feel frustrated.

It sounds like you were too angry with him and too overwhelmed by all these incidents piling up, to accept his apology or to stick around and talk with him.  I understand that completely!  There have been times when Nicholas was finally apologizing for his bad behavior and begging for my forgiveness and help, and I just slapped him away (figuratively) with my hostile, dismissive, I’ve-given-up-on-you attitude…and I know this harmed his development and our relationship.guilty.gif  I’m only human, and sometimes I just can’t keep on being patient and kind when I’ve been pushed so far.  Sometimes I do have to say, “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

But when I do recognize and make use of an opportunity like this, we can make a lot of progress.

Show some love.  “It’s scary to feel yourself overreacting and losing control of your behavior.  You don’t mean to hurt people.  Sometimes you just don’t know what to do.  Everybody feels this way sometimes.  We all have to learn, as we grow, more and better ways of dealing with our feelings.  Sometimes in our family it seems like we just can’t stop feeling hurt by each other and wanting to hurt back.  It’s hard to be strong enough to stop and to stay stopped when the others haven’t stopped yet so it’s not fair how they are still hurting your feelings.  But we love each other and need to work on this together.  Let’s talk about nice ways we can deal with our feelings.”

He kept coming downstairs because he was upset and couldn’t sleep, and because he wanted to connect with you.  I know, you were too burned out on him, you didn’t care what he was feeling, you didn’t want him around.  I know. :hug But he knew it too, and it terrified him.  He kept coming back to see if maybe you had started loving him again.  He probably realized you weren’t going to like it, but he kept trying anyway because he didn’t know what else to do, because his feelings were too big for him to handle by himself.  This is a time when bedtime can be delayed a little bit, not with stories or getting to stay up doing something distracting, but with some extra time with a parent lying next to him, cuddling him, talking with him.

I feel very strongly about this because of my own experiences with being the one who’s behaved badly and then getting to the point where I feel really bad about it and want to work out a solution to the problem.  Even as an adult trying to get along with my partner, I have times when this happens.  I know that sometimes I’ve been really awful and annoying and he doesn’t want to be near me anymore–but when I get to the point of saying, “I’m sorry I’m such a screw-up.  Please help me figure out how I can do better,” getting a harsh, rejecting reaction feels horrible and makes everything worse for a longer time.  It’s important that we try to help our loved ones when they’re ready to have help understanding better ways to get along with us.

But if you’re trying to do that and he suddenly kicks you?  Or he’s arguing with everything you say and yelling at you?  Table it.  “I can’t stay with you when you’re kicking and yelling.  We’ll talk tomorrow about better ways to handle our feelings.  Good night!  I love you!”  Then make sure that you do make another effort at talking gently about it tomorrow–don’t get busy and let it slide.

How about the situation in which you give an instruction and your child appears to completely ignore you?

Say the child’s name.  If possible, gently turn her toward you and get on her level so you can look right into her eyes.  Use your Calm Firm Voice and speak a little more slowly as you repeat what you said.  (If child’s reaction is an eye-rolling, “I KNOOOWWW!” say, “Gosh, I thought you hadn’t heard me, because you weren’t doing it.”)  Expect a response like, “Okay, I will,” or obvious compliance.  Get on with what you were doing as if you expect her to comply.  If it’s still not happening, use a brief, to-the-point reminder: “Brush teeth.  Now.”

Nicholas often has elaborate explanations of why he hasn’t done it yet or what he has to do first.  Sometimes these are reasonable and can be taken into account: “Oh, I see.  When you finish sorting the crayons, then you’ll brush your teeth.”  Other times he’s just making stuff up and delaying, or he’s going on and on when we truly do not have time for it.  This is hard to handle without hurting his feelings.  I try to use a “pause” gesture like putting my palms up, before I verbally interrupt him.  (After all, we’re trying to teach him not to interrupt while people are talking–if we interrupt him, he’s got a valid point in complaining about it!)  Then I say, “It’s time to brush teeth and leave for school right now.  I know you have a lot to do, but it’s going to have to wait until after school.”

Sometimes it helps, as he continues complaining while grudgingly doing the thing, to say something like, “Yeah, it’s annoying when we run out of time.  I really wanted to wear my other pants, but I didn’t have time to get them off the clothesline, so I have to wear these.”  Now we’re suffering together, instead of just him….  Maybe not all personalities appreciate that, but my kid does, sometimes.

I hope all this helps someone!  This is hard stuff.  I get very tired of being the grown-up.  But when I put in the effort to do it right, it works for me!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

One Response to Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

  1. Pingback: Top 10 New Articles of 2016 | The Earthling's Handbook

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