Have you ever found yourself arguing with your children repeatedly about the same issue? Or perhaps your children continually break the same rule. You have tried using consequences, begging, and sometimes even ignoring, but your rules still go unheeded. You want to do something different, but what? How can you make your interactions with your children pleasant and productive and put an end to the arguing and frustration?
One useful option is to ask your children for their input. By sitting down and brainstorming with your children, you may develop creative solutions that meet both your needs and your children’s needs. And since they have had a say in creating the plan, kids will often be more cooperative and committed to seeing the idea succeed.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Underlying the process of problem exploration is an attitude of respect. The goal is to reach a mutually acceptable agreement that meets everyone’s criteria. Therefore, you need to be open to points of view that differ from your own. It can be surprising to discover that something you value may be unimportant to another person. Your children may not be disobedient intentionally, but they may not understand why you care so much. For example, many parents complain about the difficulty they have in getting their children to clean up after themselves. From the children’s standpoint, it is just one more “to-do”; yet from the parent’s perspective, it may be a matter of easing the parental workload, keeping a younger sibling safe, creating a sense of order in the home, or showing respect for one’s possessions. To begin the process of problem exploration, find an opportunity to talk to your child when you both have the time and the atmosphere is calm. Tell your child that you want to have a chat about an on-going problem and that you hope that by discussing the issue you can find a better solution. At best, the process of talking can lead to a clear understanding of your differing viewpoints and result in an easy compromise. At the least, it can start respectful and non-judgmental communication.
The first step is to define the problem clearly. For example, if you are arguing about the amount of time your child spends on the computer, collect objective data to describe what is happening. Instead of lamenting, “You are always on the computer,” quantify the degree and extent of the problem. “This past week, you were on the computer two hours each school day and a total of eight hours during the weekend.”
The second step in the process is for both you and your child to share your thoughts and feelings about the problem. Allowing your child to go first, you can listen to his thoughts, which might sound something like the following:
“I need to be on the computer to do my research.”
“All my friends are online; I can’t miss what’s going on.”
“The things I am doing online are educational.”
“My grades are still good, so what does it matter?”
You can then share your views, which may include:
“You need to spend more time moving your body..”
“You aren’t playing with your little brother anymore.”
“You are getting distracted and not finishing your homework.”
The next step is to develop as many possible solutions as you can. At this point anything goes, even those ideas that may seem ridiculous. If in the past you had been very rigid in enforcing the rules, your child may be suspicious of your current interest in their input. Adding humor can make the process more enjoyable and relax most children. For this problem, solutions might include:
- Have unlimited computer use.
- Never use the computer – except for word processing.
- Only use the computer while standing on your head.
- Have one hour of computer use on weekdays and unlimited use on weekends.
- Pre-earn computer time by putting in an equal amount of time playing outside or reading or playing with a younger sibling.
The actual list may be quite long.
After generating ideas, review the list with your child. Cross off those ideas that one or the other finds completely objectionable or impractical. In the end, usually only one or two possibilities will remain. These thoughts then become the basis for a plan that meets both sides’ needs and preferences. In this scenario, perhaps you and your child agree that there will be no “recreational” computer time during the week until after all schoolwork and chores are complete, and that your child will get one free hour of computer use during the weekend, while the rest needs to be “earned.” It is further agreed that you will not nag. Again, because clearly defining the ideas in objective terms is important, you would want both sides to agree on what constitutes “nagging.” In this example, you and your child agree that nagging is asking about the same task more than twice in one night.
An essential part of the plan is to set forth the consequences for non-compliance. Perhaps you both agree that if your child “plays” on the computer before homework is complete, he loses any recreational time that night and the next. If it happens more than once during the week, then he loses all free computer time for that week. Conversely, if you nag, then the child earns a free hour to be used during the weekend.
The final step of problem exploration is for both of you to evaluate the plan. Often options that appear good on paper do not work in reality. The plan may contain too many loopholes or be too onerous to implement. In addition, while initially sounding good, a plan may feel unfair once put into practice. In the above example, you may plan to check-in with each other after two weeks. If all is going along well, you can keep the plan as is. If one or the other of you is unhappy, then you can re-negotiate the agreement, either by making slight adjustments or by going back to the starting block.
Again, the goal is to find a mutually acceptable plan that is respectful of everyone involved. A hidden benefit of engaging in problem exploration is that it builds your child’s self-esteem since his views are listened to, his input is valued, and his opinions are an important part of the process. Neither you nor your child may get exactly what you want. But in the end, you have avoided arguments and hard feelings and your child has learned the fine art of negotiation which will serve him throughout life. So while each may have lost the battle, both of you may win the war.By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator
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