Sunday, January 10, 2010

Parenting's Lovely Illogic

Popular among parents of our generation is the 'offer a choice' approach. The aim is to both empower the child (who has newfound control over whether he drinks from a blue or red cup) and to demonstrate more clearly that poor behavior is a choice--a choice with consequences.

It seems that this is a newer model of parenting; I am pretty sure myriad options were not my parents' approach. I recall whining or complaining about what was before me (long car ride, yucky mushrooms, milk served from a carton with today's date as the expiration) and hearing, "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick." Which was not a threat, of course. Just an annoyingly obvious and frequent observation. Also hard to argue with.

Giving kids choices is part of being a thoughtful parent, for sure. It entails giving up some control and honoring our children's natural penchant for preference. "Which of these two shirts would you like to wear today?" is a fair compromise between allowing one's fickle child to make costume changes reminiscent of a Britney Spears concert, and predetermining her outfit with no room for negotiation.

On the other hand, the presentation of options can take a turn for the absurd, and on issues about which your child could not care less, there's an argument for keeping it simple, stupid. Talk to someone who's built or remodeled her home, and she'll tell you of her overwhelm at the choices: which doorknob? Which flusher? Which grout? Which fixture? There are things we don't know we care about, and then there are things we are sure we don't care about. Put the chicken nuggets on the plate, mother, for crying out loud. I don't care what color. I'm hungry.

And if you've ever served lemonade to a bunch of neighborhood kids with your household assortment of colored cups--or cut a birthday cake, for that matter--you will quickly find that each and every child can develop a favorite color or must-have piece. Which is when I like to employ our children's preschool proverb: You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit.

I've heard some parents involve time in their menu of considerations: Would you like to get dressed now or in five minutes? This technique is a bit of a head scratcher for me, since it seems like a no-brainer from a kid's perspective. Option to procrastinate without penalty? Why sure! I suppose it amounts to more of a warning or preparation for what's to come. But it requires watching the clock. I can multitask, but I am more adept at doing things at the same time. Making multiple appointments for various times sounds like more than I can handle. Let's just get dressed NOW, shall we?

Then there's the offering of choices under duress, which I characterize as a kinder and clearer alternative to The Countdown or Threat. Of course, all three strategies buy a parent some time and give a kid One More Chance. Let's say your child is not following a direction to clean up the bath toys. Instead of threatening, "If you don't clean up the bath toys right now, you will go straight to bed with no books," the same outcome can be made into a choice: "Would you like to clean up the bath toys or go straight to bed with no books?" The advantage of presenting options is that a child's response is required, whereas threats can be ignored, even when they're tagged with, "Do you hear me?"

Threat or choice, it becomes the parent's responsibility to follow through. Which is a bummer when that constitutes honoring your child's choice to be removed from the restaurant where your dinner sits uneaten.

Offering options under stressful situations has a tendency to trip me up. Coming up with choices pertaining to the present circumstances seems to require a higher-level thinking of which I am often incapable of conjuring. I will suggest two favorable options or two synonymously unpleasant choices. Or I won't make any sense.

For example, last night, at a friends' house for dinner, I asked my daughter if she wanted to keep arguing with me or go outside for a talk. She paused, cocked her head and looked at me, and then just walked away.

Apparently confusing your subject is another effective disciplinary approach.

Which is it going to be: cooperate or have a treat later?

Do you want to get with the program or get your act together?

I ask myself, do I want to be a better parent or suck at it a little less?


My husband avoids all this confusion by simply asking for volunteers. Raise your hand if you want a Time Out. Raise your hand if you don't want dessert.

Perhaps the danger of creating choices at every turn is that our children believe everything is negotiable. I've been asked by my high school clients on many occasions, for example, if they have to do their four-hour Saturday Schools, or if they can, say, do eight half-hour detentions. Sure, I respond. As soon as the penal system allows convicts to serve their sentences once a week for a thousand years in lieu of consecutive life sentences.

In the meantime, we parents are simply deciding between choosing our battles and doing the best we can.

Six of one, half dozen of the other.


Anonymous said...

I SO relate to this. I'm at a point in my parenting where I'm not interested in scripting my response. Sometimes I'm choice oriented, but more often than not, in the heat of the moment, if my kids are treading on the same landscape of what we as a family have established as verboten, they know a time out or an apology or whatever, is next.

I think in all of the parenting etiquette that's out there, what's missing is the underlying fact that we are human. That as parents we sometimes have to fly on the wings our intuition. The more I parent with intuition, the more real it feels, which brings me closer to my children as human beings.

Before Ellen was born, the cat pooped in her readied crib. From that situation, our motto, when one of us is in a bad mood is, "Who pooped in your crib?" It makes us laugh, brakes the ice a bit. But the truth is that because we are human, not everyday or every situation is going to look the same. Our moods often indicate what are reaction is going to be. There are days when I'm unraveled and I let my kids know that--that my tolerance level is low at that moment and that I might bark at what's normally not barkable. Kids need consistency, yes, but I don't think we have to follow a preordained process in order to parent. I find this whole role as mother more interesting if I'm being creative about it.

The world might be a stage, but at best, we are improvising.

Thanks for a thought provoking entry! Sorry to babble on...eek!

kris said...

So glad I didn't have kids... I am just not up to the job. I know that now...

Anonymous said...

You said it so well Jenny. We are going through a test of wills a lot lately with our 4 & 2 year olds. The older one wants to negotiate or just simply lose all control of herself in a fit. They are often battling over the one toy that the other is playing with, which turns into a screaming tug-o-war, and me yelling from frustration and irritation. Whatever happened to telling the kids what to do and they did it with little or no back-talk? Is that too "Leave it to Beaver-ish"? Thank you for describing the struggles we as parents face daily in such a light and humorous way.
Rob S.