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Mom offered her little boy green beans. He threw them on the floor and demanded candy. She described the nutritional benefits of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. She gave him a hot dog. He threw it on the floor and demanded candy. “OK then. Here’s a candy bar!” she fumed. “It’ll probably make you sick.”
What did the boy learn? That’s easy. He learned that terrorism pays rich rewards. He learned that Mom will preach and cajole but there is a predictable path to getting what you want: stubborn insistence. He also learned that he is in charge of the family.
Consider another scenario. Your daughter is completely absorbed in creating Lego Friends Heartlake City Playground. But it is bedtime. Do you insist and threaten? Do you take away the Legos? Do you drag her to bed screaming?
Probably. But, even as we do those things, we know they’re wrong. What’s a better way?
- Be careful about the rules you make. For example, bedtime should be based on experience and good sense. We do not insist that children go to bed at 8:30 because we did and all our ancestors did. We set a bedtime because it makes sense—because we have learned that the child needs a certain amount of sleep to function well. Maybe the right bedtime for your Lego-lady is 9:00 or 9:30 or maybe 8:00.
- Adapt rules as needed. Maybe the Lego-mania occurs on a weekend night so it is reasonable for the child to stay up later. Maybe. But we don’t adjust rules because of an intimidation program by the child. We adjust rules for sensible reasons.
- When a rule makes sense enforce it with charm rather than brute force. If it is a school night and you know that your child needs to get to bed, use compassion to effect the transition. Enter her world. Ask her: “Show me what you’ve built. Tell me about it.” Take a few minutes to feel her excitement and enjoy her project with her. After a few minutes, you might say, “Thank you for showing me your Lego Friends Heartlake City Playground. I can see why you love it! And I can see how hard it is to set it aside and get ready for bed. How can I help you? Do you want me to set it in a safe place so you can resume your work tomorrow? Or do you want me to snuggle you toward bed?”
She will surely object. “Please! Just let me have a few more minutes!” We all know that minutes grow into hours. But compassion is more effective than lectures. “I wish you could work on your project to your heart’s content. I can see how much you love it. But it is time for bed. Would you like to trot to bed or would you like me to carry you?” The message is clear: I am completely sympathetic to your feelings. Yet I also believe in wise limits. It is time to go to bed.
- Be proactive. A wise parent knows that it is probably not a good idea to wrestle and pillow fight immediately before bed. Plan ahead. Build soothing rituals. Read or cuddle with the child. Help them be ready for sleep. Of course proactivity applies to bedtime, mealtime, chores, etc. We can set children up for success or we can be mad when they fail. For example, it is not a good idea to allow snacks right before dinner. It is wise to have sibling play apart from each other when they are tired or cranky.
- Customize. Each child is different. One child is more sensitive. Another is more exuberant. A third is independent. God invites us to be both wise and compassionate. We think about each child’s disposition and how to help him or her navigate the challenges of life.
To some people all of this may look like permissive parenting. But good parenting is not permissive. It has a clear sense of limits. It combines respect for children with respect for rules. This is exactly what good research on parenting recommends. It is also what Jesus taught.
What do kids learn from strong and caring parenting?
- They learn that we love them. We care about their needs and interests. This is a safe world.
- We are committed to helping them learn to make good decisions.
- We are willing to negotiate but we are unafraid to stand for reasonable limits.
One more word about parenting: We often have too much faith in words. But children only know what words and directives mean because they are connected to actions. When the earnest mama gives a boy a candy bar after he rejected beans and franks, he learned that her words were empty. If, after offering reasonable options, he refused to eat them, she might lift him from his high chair with the words, “I can see you’re not hungry yet. Let me know when you’re ready to eat beans.”
Consider the five recommendations described above. After studying them, what do you feel invited to do differently? Make a plan for how you will deal with predictable challenges—a plan that allows you to respect the principles you know to be true while teaching and loving your child.
For an overview of parenting from an LDS perspective, read my book, Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth.
For an amazing book on combining compassion with limits, read Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child. (Disclosure: I helped revise the book for the new edition.)