In real life, how often do we do something (or not do something) simply because someone told us to (or not to)? Not that often, really. We wear seat belts because we know it’s safer, we take out our trash because we know that otherwise it’ll pile up and start to stink, and we take medicine because we know it will make us feel better. And yet adults assume that children should do things (or not do things) simply “because I said so.” I don’t do that. Instead I engage in what I call “the art of persuasion.”
My goal is to help my preschool-aged daughter Sally understand why I ask her to do what I ask her to do, and to help her choose to do it herself rather than simply forcing her to do it. I often remind her that when I tell her to do something she is allowed two responses: “okay” or “why?” I see “why” as a perfectly reasonable response when asked to do something — it’s how I often respond when told to do something in real life, after all. When someone tells me, say, that I should have life insurance, my response is not to run out and get life insurance but rather to ask why.
I have a number of tools in my persuasion toolbox. I’m going to take a moment to illustrate how I might use each to handle a specific situation — trying to get Sally to clean up her kitchen set toys. I often will use some combination of these tools, or will move from one to another if I find that the first isn’t working.
“Sally, look: the kitchen set toys are all over the floor, right here in the walkway. Someone might trip on them and fall and get hurt.”
“Someone might get hurt?”
“Yes, and that wouldn’t be good, would it? Mommy would like you to clean up your toys so that no one will get hurt.”
“Someone might get hurt! Have to clean up toys!”
“Sally, you need to clean up your kitchen set toys.”
“Don’t want to.”
“I know you don’t want to, but the toys do need to be cleaned up. I’ll tell you what, how about if I help you clean up the toys: and then we’ll go get some ice cream out of the freezer and have a special treat together?”
“Hey Sally, let’s have a race! You clean up the toys on that side of the floor and I’ll clean up the ones on this side of the floor, and we’ll see who gets done first!”
“Yeah! I going to beat you!”
“No, I’m going to win!”
“No! I going to beat you!”
There are times, of course, when nothing seems to work. In those cases I try to understand what other factors might be affecting the situation. Is she tired? Hungry? Simply having a bad day? Suggesting a break so that she and I can calm down or regroup helps if I find myself starting to escalate the situation. There was, for example, a recent time when I became angry with her because nothing seemed to be able to convince her to clean up what I was asking her to clean up. Realizing that I ran the risk of breaking everything I believe about parenting, I shut myself in the bathroom to calm down, allowing her to do the same in the hall outside the door, and when I came out she calmly explained her side and I was able to calmly listen, and together we were able to start over.
In practice, though, one of these three tools, or some combination of them, almost always works. I love seeing the gears turning in Sally’s head as she truly understands why I’m asking her to do something, and I love her excitement when she races to complete a task before I do. Sometimes, too, it’s Sally herself who comes up with a compromise we can both live with. And through all of this, I’d like to hope that I’m equipping Sally with tools that will help her in the future.