Tugs of War
I’ve raised kids. My children are presently bringing theirs up. I’ve been around parents and watched them relate to their youngsters. I have, moreover, listened to endless discussions about parenting and the debates surrounding strict rules, flexibility, collaboration and cooptation. One inescapable feature of this most challenging process is the daily relentless tug of war between parents and their kids. As the authority figures, parents are responsible for socializing their kids, getting them accustomed to doing what they’re supposed to do. To proceed smoothly in daily life, after all, requires that essential tasks be performed and schedules followed. Parents no doubt remember that once upon a time they themselves were subject to rules and requirements, expected to follow instructions without complaint. They may even recall they didn’t take kindly to this, though some may insist they usually complied and did not resist. But they’re probably mistaken; most children, after all, are predisposed to do things their own way. Why that is so is not always apparent. Kids rarely, if ever, offer explanations or suggest motivation. They may have their own idea about what they want at a given moment. They may not appreciate being told what to do. They may not want to stop what they’re doing. Or they may be testing the parent, measuring just how far they can push back, how much they can get away with by being ornery and stubborn. What follows are certain of the issues which typically produce a test of wills and uncertain outcomes.
EATING: Often this represents the ultimate struggle between parent and child. Parents can’t concede much here; a child, after all, must be nourished. The kid doesn’t recognize that same urgency. Food is placed in front of the youngster, who just may stare at it and put nothing in his mouth, maybe even push it aside. “I don’t like it,” he says – whatever it is. “You’ve always eaten it,” the parent counters. “Just eat some of it,” may work, but not necessarily. Perhaps another concession now – “What else would you like?” The child is clearly in the driver’s seat. Or, “Eat something and you’ll get dessert.” Or the more forceful, “Eat something, or you can’t leave the table.” Time is passing, both parties are losing patience, and tensions are rising. Multiple end-games here need not concern us. The point is rather that the encounter has not been pleasant. There are no clear winners here.
DRESSING: Infants and toddlers wear whatever parents put on them. In time, however, the child comes to insist upon having a “say” or even a veto on such matters. And as often as not, parent and child may find themselves at loggerheads. That, of course, assumes the child concedes at a given moment, that it is even time to get dressed. He or she may be perfectly content and remain in what they are wearing, even if it’s nightwear. But the family is heading out and the child needs to be suitably attired. What often follows is a prolonged “fashion show,” the parents suggesting certain clothes, the child rejecting a series of choices. “I don’t want to wear that.” “OK, what do you want to wear?” – a reasonable approach that unfortunately often gets no response. “OK, so we won’t go! You’ll stay home” – a false note of desperation with little basis in reality. Sometimes the child is angling for a particular (however inappropriate) outfit. On other occasions, he or she is just not in the mood to comply with any request, even when choices are offered. Eventually, an accommodation is reached, though neither side may be completely satisfied.
SLEEPING: As much, if not more, of a consistent challenge as eating. A child requires a substantial amount of sleep. Parents recognize this – children don’t. Parents also require time for themselves, without having the children about. Children, however, want to have their parents around at most times to cater to their needs. Getting the kids to sleep can therefore, become a lengthy, tortuous process. There are, of course, the preliminaries – a TV show, dessert, a book to be read. Getting them into their pajamas becomes yet another challenge of uncertain outcome (“OK, sleep in your clothes”). Making certain they go to the bathroom first takes some doing, as is seeing to it that their teeth are brushed. And, of course, they stall – “I’m not tired.” “Just get into bed – you’ll fall asleep.” “Leave the light on.” Silence. Success. But then from the bedroom a request – “I need a drink.” “You’re stalling. Get to sleep, it’s late.” It may not be over yet, however, because in the middle of the night parents may discover a “visitor” has entered their bed. Or the child may awaken at an ungodly early hour and refuse all suggestions that he or she get back into bed. If parents are tired in the morning, there’s often an obvious explanation.
We’ve just scratched the surface. Making a mess, cleaning up, watching TV, playing with toys, not hitting your sister, getting into the car, hurrying up when late, coming inside, washing your hands, combing your hair – all have the potential of producing a standoff, generating tantrums and producing a lengthy battle of wills. Parents probably will win a majority of these contests, but not without meeting stiff resistance and often only after making concessions against their better judgment.
Still parenting is not a zero-sum game; both parents and children can come away ahead after having stood their ground and made their preferences clear. Both can gain in the process – parents growing progessively skilled in devising tactics and discovering new less confrontational ways to guide their youngsters and children, learning how to balance their desires with parental rules and direction.