| by Nathan McTague
“How many times do I have to tell you?!” “When are you going to learn?” “If you don’t listen to me…!” If you’ve ever been around kids for more than a minute, you’ve likely heard some of their parents say at least something like these phrases. If you’ve been a parent longer than a couple years, you’ve likely said one or more of them yourself. At the very least, almost all of us have had similar lines lobbed at us from time to time by our own parents when we were growing up.
The fact is, we parents often find ourselves repeating what we say in a barrage of stuttered phrases, like a skipping auctioneer: “Come here. Come here. Come’ere. C’mere. C’mere. Here! Here! HERE!” or “No. No. Nonononono! NO!” or “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stoppit. Stoppit. STOP- PIT!”.
It’s not uncommon. It’s easy to slip into. And part of it is the nature of being the only (supposedly…) rational, full-brained person in the room.
But the other fact is, it’s easy to get carried away thinking that our little ones need us to act that way in order to get them to comply with, or even hear, our requests, and “behave!”
Biologically speaking, our kids are designed to follow our lead. Period.
If we don’t foil it by being too demanding all the time, too inflexible, too authoritarian, too retributive, too exacting, or too permissive (which isactually rarer than we’re taught to think…) — then our kids grow into adolescence trusting our leadership, relying on our authority, and doing (mostly) as we’d prefer. Yes, if we’ve raised them right, they’ll learn to question authority along the way, and we’d do well to entertain those questions in more than a perfunctory manner; but by and large, even when they have questions, they’re still respecting whose role is whose, they’re still looking to our leadership, and they’re still more geared toward following us than not. All we have to do is honour our own roles as leaders by being informative guides, confident captains, and loving nurturers. I’ve written some on all of those topics before, but today I want to spend a little more time on the last piece — leadership through love.
The truth is, almost every kid is by nature more compliant than almost every adult (read that again if you need to!); it’s just that we’ve been taught to expect children to do every single thing we ever say — and that’s not reasonable. No one will ever live up to such a ridiculous ideal, not without losing her own identity anyway. So we have this skewed notion of what’s normal for children — what signifies normal cooperation, and conformity (what we all call “compliance”) — and we expect way more of it from them than makes sense.
Even so, expecting that our kids will follow our lead is way more productive for everyone involved than assuming the opposite. Mostly, this is because kids rise to meet our expectations of them.
If we treat them like convicts, they act like convicts. If we treat them as cooperative, rookie members of our family team, and expect that most of the time, they’ll “eventually get it” (if they don’t already), then 8 times out of 10, that’s what we’ll see.
The single best way to increase cooperation (both ahead of the game and in the moment) is to turn up the connection.
Because they’re born to follow us, and because they’re by nature more likely to do what we say than anyone else ever would be, the only thing we really need to do to get more of that (aside from not thwarting it!) is to lean into the natural bond we already share, and that our biology has tuned to perfection for just such a purpose, and let the relationship do it’s magic.
By connecting with them, we prove their significance to us, we show them that they belong with us, and both the neurobiology and the psychology of that connection are so compelling that they almost can’t not do what we ask. And all it takes is spending a little time, giving out some hugs, maybe doing a bit of playing, reading, and/or wrestling — and voila — you’re connecting!
The bottom line, for the moment is, if your kid isn’t listening to you — I mean really not listening to what you say or request or expect — instead of checking the behavior, maybe check in with the relationship. Look for ways to communicate significance and belonging to your child, and practice making time and space to connect.
Take him on a date just the two of you — his choice. Take her to the park and play together — her lead. Take ten minutes and just snuggle on the couch — and try to be the last one to let go. Leave love notes (even if they’re just crappy pictures). Give free kisses. Hold hands. Smile freely. In a word — relate!
I promise you, it is surprising how much easier it is to get cooperation from a deeply connected kid. And when we get practiced at throwing our own cooperation into the mix, too (for modeling and bonding purposes, at least!) — well, the difference is hard to believe. In fact, I’m personally convinced (by my own 14, 12, and 8 year-olds) that if we get really skilled at cooperating with them – that is, using our natural leadership,connecting, and working with them to find mutually satisfying solutions to issues as they arise – then we no longer need to worry about enforcing compliance or insuring conformity.
When we’re working together to meet needs, be empathetic to feelings, and get things done — we’re working together!
We don’t have to demand compliance, because we’re working together. We don’t have to punish them for noncompliance in order to instill obedience, because we’re working together. We don’t have to do anything to them to make them do what we say, because we’re working together.
If we’re not working together with our kids to get everyone’s needs met — that is, cooperating — well, then we’re working too hard. And that’s all there is to it. If we want more cooperation from them, then what we need to do is give more of it to them. If we want them to care about us enough to do what we ask even when they’d rather not, then we have to show them how much we care about them. It’s a direct proportion and a turn key operation. And if you aren’t already — it’s high time you and your family started cashing in!
To get you started and/or keep you going, here’s some “working with” phrases you can try out that engender an atmosphere of and invite cooperation:
- “It seems like, right now, you are wanting X, and I am wanting Y. How can we make it work for both of us?”
- “I’d like to help, can you tell me what you need?”
- “I’d like your help with something real quick.” and/or “Can you help me for a minute?”
- “How can we make it a game?”or “What’s the fun version?!”
- “We have to go in the next 10 min- utes. Is there anything you want to do before we leave?” then “We’re going to be leaving in about 2 more min- utes. Any ‘last things’ you need to do or get?”
- “I was thinking I’dliketo be-fore we leave the park/playground/ exploratorium today. What’s one thing you want to do before we leave? Which do you want to do first?”
- “What’s the most fun/#1-super-secret/safest way to get to the car from here? Go!”
- “Since we have to interrupt your game, what part of this do you want to bring with us?”
- “What do you want/need before we ?” or just “What do you need?”
- “How do you want to handle that/this?”
- “What can we do about_________ ?”
- “What’s your idea?” or “Do you have any ideas for ?”
- “Well, we’re in this together…What’s our plan?”
- “This (situation, scenario, dynamic, interaction, etc.) isn’t working for me. Can we/ I’d like to/ I’d prefer we/ Let’s try/ What if we…”
- “That wasn’t what we agreed/That wasn’t what I asked for… Do you need more information/time/hugs?”
- ”I’d like us to follow-through on what we discussed.” or “I think we should do as we agreed.”
- ”We still have to . How can we/I make it easier for you/us?”
- “Will you help me figure out what to do here?”
- “I’m willing to . What are you willing to do?”
- “We can’t ______ . Do you have any other ideas?”
- “Honey, will you please bring me that ______ ?”
- “Will you/everyone please________ ?”
- “Can we/we all agree to ?”
- “What would help?”
- “Do you have a preference?”
- “My favorite way is to ______. What’s your favorite way?” then if necessary, “Which one sounds more fun/better/ easier to you right now?”
- “We have to________ . What part do you want to pick/choose/make-up/ design?”
- Or (no matter the topic) use singing, “We gotta _________right now. Or I’m gonna have a cow! We gotta do it right away. Or I’ll have to buy some haa-aay!”
- And, of course, don’t forget the NVC classic, which, being a classic, is always in style: “I’m feeling______ . I need_ . Will you __ ?”
Once you get going in this direction, you will notice that every upset, every moment of discourse, every disagreement, and every request you make presents you with an opportunity to connect with your children, to work together to find mutually satisfying solutions, and to meet everyone’s needs. Slowly but surely, you can soften your grip on the reins, and learn to lead by example and with cooperation, rather than trying to rule by always demanding compliance.
When you do, you’ll begin to notice that your previously perma-furrowed brow has miraculously relaxed, your gritting teeth have magically started grinning, and your little ducklings are gleefully following in your wake. Who knows, you might even find yourself having a lot more fun being a paren. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Nathan M. McTague, CPCC, CPDPE is a life coach and parenting mentor, and happy father of three amazing daughters, ages 14, 12, and 8. He and partner, Natalie Christensen, run the Center for Emotional Education, offering workshops, and one-to-one coaching and consulting to parents all over the world, as well as a line of tools for emotional support and development, called Feeleez. When not enjoying his family, or working with others to help them enjoy theirs, Nathan can be found reading the latest developmental neuroscience, making art and music, or sipping decaffeinated great tea by the river.