Dr. Elaine Heffner: Reasoning with a child
How do you get children to do what you want them to do -- or not to do what you don’t want them to do? This is where parents often feel stuck because it can seem that no matter what you try, it isn’t working. These are the conflict situations that arise between parents and children when they are of different minds about what is wanted or needed at a particular time. They each have a different agenda so who will give in to whom?
Part of the problem lies in that phrase -- “give in.” It feels as though the choice is between the child giving in to you, or you giving in to the child. Not wanting to “give in,” and unable to “make” the child do what you want, you try to use persuasion to get the child to do what it is you want done. Parents often call that reasoning with a child.
A familiar example is explaining why it is bedtime in terms of the need to get enough sleep, to be healthy and able to play in the park the next day. Or, why it is time to get dressed in order to leave for school and have fun with your friends. Or, if you don’t let your friend play with that toy he won’t want to be your friend anymore. The idea is that using reason will persuade the child.
Parents complain that they have tried to reason with a child to no avail, and often the implication is that the problem lies in the child. He, or she, is not being reasonable, so something is wrong with the child. On the other hand, the child may think the problem lies in the parent. From the child’s point of view, it is the parent who is unreasonable. It is unreasonable to go to bed when you are having fun. It is unreasonable to get dressed when you haven’t finished the puzzle you’re doing.
The problem is really two-fold. One is that the issue has nothing to do with reason. The problem is a conflict caused by two people wanting different things. Parents see their requests as reasonable and the child’s as unreasonable -- therefore, reason should win out. The parent’s request usually is reasonable -- in adult terms.
Actually, the problem does lie in the child -- not because something is wrong with him but because he is a child. Reason says to put off immediate gratification in favor of a larger goal. The real problem is that children are not yet capable of that kind of reasoning. They still operate in terms of doing what is pleasurable -- in the moment. As a child, he is being asked to think like an adult, which he is still not ready developmentally to do.
In early times, age 7 was considered the age of reason and was the dividing line between infancy and adulthood. Academic education began at that age, and although now we may try to teach children to read and write at earlier ages, they are still not capable of becoming future oriented in ways important to us as adults.
As parents and goal directed adults, it helps to stay focused on the goal rather than winning or losing in a conflict with one’s child. Children often say the parent is not fair. That is true from the child’s point of view. We do better agreeing that sometimes parents aren’t fair to their children, but that’s the way it is.
Acknowledging you are an unfair parent can accomplish more than trying to prove how reasonable you are.
-- Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.