Inside: We all know what kids need to feel secure, but did you know that there’s an inbuilt mechanism that encourages kids to NOT do what we say? It’s true. If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t just mind you, this may help.
The aftermath of a tornado. Rubble and debris everywhere.
That is what my 3 year old’s room looked like after his independent play.
A pack of wipes had been half-emptied, there were blocks in every corner, trucks in lines on the floor, a rocking chair turned upside down to be used as a tunnel, an entire dresser drawer’s contents spread on the ground as he pulled everything out to find a dry pair of undies.
It was chaos.
And it may surprise you to know… this doesn’t bother me. Why?
There is no better way to teach the principle of cause and effect and natural consequences. Anyway, I told him to clean it all up. He knows these are the rules. He understands. But that day, oh no.
“Cyean it up?” [throws self on floor and wails] “I can’t cyean it up by myself. You cyean it up.”
I calmly replied, “You made the mess, you clean it up. Shall I direct you?”
He then said, “No!!!!! I never cyean it up.”
(… This is the point at which many moms start feeling the friction. The emotions inside rising. The anger and frustration that comes when your child just doesn’t do what you want…)
So I calmly told him (because we can be calm moms), “You can come out of your room as soon as it’s clean. Until then you must stay,” then I went about my business.
There was crying, flailing, and a general resistance to my request.
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So what was the instinctual force happening inside my son?
“Counterwill is a name for the instinctive reaction of a child to resist being controlled. This resistance can take many forms: opposition, negativism, laziness, noncompliance, disrespect, lack of motivation, belligerence, incorrigibility and even antisocial attitudes and actions.
It can also express itself in resistance to learning. Despite the multitude of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple – a defensive reaction to perceived control or coercion.” (source)
Essentially, we are all born not wanting other people to control us. I do not advocate letting children decide what’s best for them, but I do think we can understand the counter-will to save household frustration.
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What I’m not saying:
- we should let kids make all their own decisions
- we shouldn’t have rules and boundaries
- we should be scared of activating their counter-will
What I am saying:
- we can guide our children’s behavior without forced coercion most of the time
- we can give choices without giving away our authority
- we can understand how kids’ minds work
What the Counter-will Is And How To Work With It
So let’s dive into how we can parent around this thing called counter-will.
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Give Clear Choices
The idea for gaining cooperation is not to command then expect blind obedience, but to give your children the choice to obey. Because it is right, good, and in their best interests.
We aren’t trying to program little children to do mindlessly obey all grownups. We want them to understand they can argue without backtalk. We want them to express their feelings, even if it is a lot to handle.
We want them to learn to obey our word because they trust us.
When we give choices instead of ultimatums we give our child a chance to choose obedience.
When we issue a command, their counter-will bypasses their thinking and they often retreat into defiance.
Read: How To Live Within Your Limits And Hold Your Boundaries
It’s time to go to church on Sunday morning and your child needs to put their shoes on and get in the van.
You can say, “Put your shoes on and get in the van right now.“
This will likely draw out counter-will in your kids who don’t want to be rushed or told what to do. They’ll exert control by dilly dallying, hem hawing, back-talking, and whining.
Alternatively, you could say something like, “It’s time to go to church. Put on your shoes and get in the van or we’ll be late. If we’re too late you’ll miss your chance to go to the kids group so you’ll have to sit with us in the service.”
Now if your kids always sit with you, you’d find something different. If they like the kids church that’s an incentive for them to hurry up so they don’t miss it.
The example is random and applies to our particular Sunday situation, but you could choose anything that works with your family.
The point is:
- give them a choice to (a) obey or (b) choose not to obey and experience certain consequences
- do not present your request as one direct command unless it is something truly important like “Get away from the road” or “Put down the knife.”
Offer Incentives or Disincentives
So I often use incentives or disincentives with my kids. Because I’ve had 5 in 5 years, I’m not tying everyone’s shoes, putting on everyone’s coats and buckling them all in the car individually.
My kids can do many things that surprise others. It’s how life works with us. It has its drawbacks, however.
Sometimes I need 4 kids to do what I need them to do when I need them to do it.
So I often give incentives. This may be called bribing to some, but I view it as incentivizing the behavior I want to see.
Or disincentivizing the behavior I don’t want. This is how this may play out in our home. Note: I’ll often use the “next thing” (the South African way) as the incentive.
If you have dilly dallied, when we get to the park you’ll sit by me on the bench for 5 minutes while everyone else plays.”
Either way they’re getting in. I’m not threatening no park, but I’m threatening having to get there and wait. This helps them to take the decision into their own hands and decide what they’d prefer.
Don’t Be A Drama Queen
One of the worst things about being an angry mom is that it blows a situation out of proportion.
You freak out over something relatively minor (like your child pulling down his pants and peeing in public, say… I’m not saying this happens, I’m not saying it doesn’t) and pretty soon your child doesn’t know what is big and what isn’t.
If you want to get your child to do something, say your piece in a calm and authoritative voice then let them decide their own actions.
That’s it. There really is no need for fanfare or discussion.
Say Your Piece and Walk Away
This is extremely effective. I don’t mean to walk away as though you are leaving them alone in punishment. No. Simply walk away about your business.
Sometimes kids need dignity and space to decide they will obey. It’s nearly impossible for them to do this with an adult towering over them, hands on hips, and a scowl.
This leaves your child to weigh pros and cons, think about cause and effect, and work through their frustration.
So back to my 3-year-old… after about 20 minutes or flailing and wailing and all manner of protestations, he started cleaning.
He put his toys away, fixed his chair (as best he could), put pillows back on his bed, and put his clothes away. He called to me from the door with a happy voice, “Mommy, I cyeaned my room! Can I come out now?”
“Sure, baby, go play,” I said, and he gave me a kiss as he ran off.
Clean room: √
Obedience as a choice by him: √
Happy mom and son: √
I really enjoyed this post. Do you have a post that talks about discipline/ expectations by age? My son is 18 months…sometimes I think I expect too much from him. Sometimes I worry if I expect to little? With 5 kids, I’m sure you have some perspective! I’d love to hear it. My so is very verbal, but I still worry if I say more than short phrases, the point gets lost (thus when I start talking about natural consequences, etc.)
Rachel Norman says
Lindsay, I don’t have a post about expectations by age, but that’s a GREAT idea! And I think your concerns are universal mom concerns. We don’t want to push neither do we want to be lenient. Sounds like he’s in good hands, though!
I like your suggestion to offer choices instead of demands. My son is 4 and so far I think I have been far too passive. I work full time and have alot of guilt for spending so much time away from my son. This has caused me to avoid conflict with him because I want our time together to be positive. I’ve learned now that it has had an opposite affect and now he won’t listen to anything i ask, of course resulting in our time together to be not as well spent. I have tried your method of offering choices similar to the scenarios you have described in your article but they don’t work for me. My son is wonderful and smart and funny but he is also incredibly defiant. Any advice on how to handle a behaviour that I’ve let go on too long?
Thank you for your thoughtful advice to us Moms ?