"In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game." - Elizabeth Kolbert, in Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost? in the New Yorker.
This situation may be extreme, but most parents I know have some version of this complaint. It’s a good question: Why don’t kids just do what we say the first time we say it?! And there’s a good answer. Several, in fact.
1. They don’t share our priorities. No child understands why a bath seems so essential to you. And every child has something else he’s in the middle of doing, that seems more important to him. It may not look important to you, but a child’s play is his work — that’s how young humans learn. That’s a good thing—you want a child who’s self-motivated, rather than expecting you to entertain him.
Solution: First, connect with your child by noticing what he’s working on and acknowledging his priorities: "Wow, look at this elaborate train track you’re building! Can you show me how it works?" Then, give him a warning that you’re about to overrule his agenda with your own: ”Sweetie, it’s bath time. Do you want to take your bath now, or in five minutes? Ok, five minutes with no fuss? Ok, that’s a deal — let’s shake on it!”
2. We’ve trained them not to pay attention until we yell and threaten. Your child is no dummy. She knows she can milk extra time before bath if she just ignores you. That doesn’t make her bad, just human. So if your child is like the eight year old who ignored five requests, it means you’ve trained her that you aren’t serious until you yell.
Solution: Don’t give directives from across the room. Move in close to your child and touch her. Connect by commenting on what she’s doing. Then say "Excuse me, Sweetie….I need to tell you something," and wait until she looks you in the eye. If she’s staring at a screen, warn her that you’re going to pause the game or the TV. Don’t give your directive until you make eye contact, so she knows you’re serious. Give only one warning, then stick to the time limit you’ve agreed on. Follow through. If you don’t, you’re training her not to take your requests seriously.
3. They need our help to make the transition. When you’re engrossed in your computer screen, don’t you find it hard to pull yourself away to tend to a whining child? Kids experience our repeated nagging the same way we experience their whining, meaning they try to tune it out.
Solution: Give one warning. When you go back in five minutes, connect again by commenting on his play: "Wow, look at those trains go!" Remind him of your deal:"Ok, Sweetie, it’s been five minutes. Remember our deal? Five minutes and no fuss. It’s bathtime now." Then, create a bridge from his play to what you’re asking: "Do you want the two engines to leap off the track and race all the way to the bathroom? Here, I’ll take this one and you take that one; Let’s zoom!"
4. Their frontal cortex is still developing the ability to switch gears from what they want to what you want. Every time you set a limit that requires your child to give up what she wants in order to do what you want, she has to make a choice. When she decides that her relationship with you is more important than what she wants at this moment, she follows your request. Every time she does that, she’s strengthening her brain’s ability to rein herself in. That’s how kids develop self-discipline. But this only works if your child switches gears somewhat willingly. If you drag her kicking and screaming, she’s resisting, rather than choosing. She’s not building those self-discipline neural pathways. (That’s why there’s a “self” in “self-discipline. It’s chosen from inside.)
Solution: Set limits with empathy so she WANTS to cooperate, and gets plenty of practice.
5. They don’t feel heard. We can’t make children obey, unless we’re willing to hurt their bodies and break their spirits. They have to want to cooperate. Luckily, our kids usually give us the benefit of the doubt and follow our rules, as long as they feel heard.
Solution: Acknowledge her position, even when you can’t accommodate it: "I hear you. You’re saying it loud and clear— NO BATH! You really don’t want to take a bath. I bet when you’re older you’ll NEVER take a bath, right?….Tonight you do need a bath, though….Which do you choose— a bath or a shower?"
Sometimes, hearing your child’s perspective might even convince you to compromise or change your position. That’s fine. Just explain your reasoning, so your child knows it was his win/win solution that changed your mind, not his obstinacy.
6. They feel disconnected from us. When kids don’t follow our lead, it’s because they feel disconnected from us. Why on earth would he feel disconnected? Because he was away from you all day. Or you lost your temper at him this morning. Or he’s angry at you because you always have the baby on your lap. Or you rely on timeouts and consequences for discipline, instead of connection. Or maybe just because he’s a little person in a big world, and that gets scary, and all those scary feelings get pushed down inside, where they block the child’s ability to lovingly connect.
Solution: Empathize with your child’s experience, both when you’re giving a directive and as often as you can. That rebuilds the connection. Be prepared for any upset feelings to surface once your child feels that warm connection more strongly, and stay compassionate through the resulting meltdown. After he’s had a chance to “show” you the upset that’s been weighing on him, your child will feel re-connected and cooperative.
7. They’ve given up on us. Children naturally look to their parents for nurturing and guidance. If they’re convinced that we’re on their side, they want to please us. So if your child is defiant, or you keep finding yourself in power struggles, that’s a red flag that your relationship needs strengthening.
Solution: Every time your child initiates an interaction, remind yourself that she’s trying to meet legitimate needs. Empathize and find a way to meet those needs, even when you’re setting limits. That convinces your child that you’re on the same side. To deepen the relationship, start spending half an hour of Special Time, one-on-one, daily. This seems so simple that most parents under-estimate the impact. But I have never seen special time fail. Be sure to do a lot of giggling and roughhousing on the days when you get to choose the activity. On alternate days, follow your child’s lead and just pour your love into her. You’ll see an immediate difference in her willingness to cooperate.
8. They’re human. Force creates push-back. All humans resist control, and kids are no different. The more they feel “pushed around” the more they rebel. That’s a good thing. Training a child to be obedient means you’ll always have to be there to give orders, and as an adult she may not stand up for herself. Teaching a child self-discipline raises a child who can think for herself, stand up for what’s right, and isn’t likely to be taken advantage of.
Solution: Choose your battles. Make sure your child knows you’re on her side and she has some choices. Coach your child rather than trying to control her.
Kolbert doesn’t mention any of these reasons in her article. She says kids ignore parents because “Parents want their kids’ approval” and "worry that we’re going to damage…kids by frustrating them.” This accusation surfaces in every discussion alleging that kids today are spoiled. But I just don’t buy it. The man who picked his eight year old up and put him in the bathroom wasn’t afraid to set a limit because he wanted his son’s approval. His son didn’t follow his directives because the dad didn’t follow through on his limit. He had trained his child to ignore him. And he most likely finished the evening with screaming or walloping, which decrease the child’s respect and connection, and therefore decrease future cooperation.
One more thing. Discussions about whether kids are spoiled always indict parents for raising kids who aren’t obedient, as if obedience is the holy grail to which parents should aspire. But don’t you want to raise a child who’s self-disciplined and WANTS to cooperate? That’s very different from obedience, where the discipline comes from outside the child. As H.L. Mencken said, "Morality is doing what’s right no matter what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told no matter what’s right."
Does setting empathic limits sound like a lot of work? It is, in the beginning. It would certainly be easier if kids would immediately comply with our every directive. But the good news is that following these practices consistently not only raises a self-disciplined child, it raises a child who knows you’ll follow through, so he doesn’t need to be asked five times to do something. Which makes it a whole lot easier to get him into the bathtub.