At some point most exhausted mom’s have said something like, “These kids are driving me crazy! They’re just so difficult and disobedient.” As I sat in a park with my daughter one day, I heard a group of moms all agreeing with each other on this topic. Suddenly one mom yelled at her son, “Put down the stick and don’t hit your brother with it, Okay…?”
He ignored her. She rolled her eyes and said to her friends,”See what I mean? He just won’t listen.”
As I sat there I whispered a silent prayer for this frustrated, exhausted mom, a stranger to me, but a comrade in arms nonetheless. Actually I prayed for her all the way home. As I prayed and turned the scene over and over in my mind it hit me. The son hadn’t been disobedient. He heard a question and had chosen “no” as his answer. His mom had started with a directive, “Put down the stick”, but ended with “Okay???” Implying, albeit unintentionally, that her son could freely choose whether or not to put down the stick. Wow, I thought. She had completely undermined herself with the way she said what she wanted.
The next day, while in a bookstore restroom, I heard a mom say to her 3 year old son, “Joshy, can you get ready to use the potty after mommy?” Joshy responded with a shockingly defiant “NO!” His poor mom was flabbergasted and began everything from negotiating, with promises of ice cream, to anger about his tone.
Oh wow! There it was again.
How often do we moms do this to ourselves? I dare say more than we realize. When we turn our directives into questions or we use phrases such as, “Did you ________ (hit your brother, eat the cookie before dinner, take your sisters toy)?” when we already know they did. When we use phrases like, “If I have to tell you one more time…”, or we end what we intend to be a command with “Okay?”, we end up giving up our power without even knowing it.
It comes from a well intentioned place. We may want to empower our kids to come to good conclusions and behaviors on their own, with just a hint of sway from us. We may not want to be dictatorial or harsh.We may think that implying a choice will avoid a temper tantrum form our child. But phrasing like this confuses kids, leaving them to think things like: “I was going to do what mom said, but then she said I didn't have to. Why is she upset with me now?” or “Mom is too weak to set a standard.” Or “Mom doesn't actually know that I obviously ate the cookie. Why would I upset her by letting her know I did?” Or that they have choices they don’t really have.When our phrasing is vague, both mom and child end up out of sync with each other and often angry.
Changing this pattern doesn’t mean we have to throw all those good intentions out the window and begin issuing drill sergeant style orders. Giving our children real choices is an important part of creating in them a sense of agency. But clarity is vital in facilitating agency and helping virtues take root. It also helps us moms feel effective and in sync with our kids.
Here are some steps to be gentle and effective:
Pause for a brief moment and think of what you want your child to do and how to say it as a simple directive statement. “Put down the stick.” or “After I use the potty it will be your turn.
Employ a firm, not harsh, tone of voice. Tone of voice changes everything! Neither a sing-song wishy-washy tone, nor screaming, will illicit compliance from your child. A tone that expresses the confidence that your directive is doable, and that you trust your child has the integrity to do it, almost always yields positive results. You may have to practice this alone in front of a mirror after the kids go to bed, or do videos of yourself on your phone until you achieve the words, tone, and facial expression that convey kind, but firm, confidence. The results will be worth the practice.
Offer choices at times and in ways that don’t stress you out. Often we add questions to our directives because we want our children to practice making choices and thinking critically. These are vital skills that need to be taught incrementally and age appropriately over time. Choreograph moments to build these skills into your child’s life in manageable ways that don’t add stress to your life.For example, three year old Joshy can practice these skills by being given a choice between only two things and at a unrushed time. Perhaps between his blue shirt and his red shirt as mom lays out his clothes the evening before he is to wear them. At three he isn’t developmentally ready to be given a choice about using the bathroom before he rides in the car. Possible “accidents” are more stress than mom and child need in their day. Whereas an older child could certainly decide whether or not he needs to use the restroom at any given time.
As often as possible address your child by name and maintain eye contact while making a clear directive statement. This will increase your chances that your child is actually tuning into your message. If you're not sure if they've processed what you've said, ask them to repeat it back to you.If they can't, maintain eye contact and tell them to listen so they can repeat what you said and do the task.
None of us can do this perfectly 100% of the time, but practicing these simple steps can significantly take down your stress level, help your child cooperate with you more often, build trust between you and give you more peace in your relationship.