Here is April’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
Our seven year old daughter is constantly trying to talk her way out of things. I know people say “pick your battles,” but I’m having a hard time figuring out when to give in and when to force things. How do I get her to do what I need her to do right when I ask?
Signed, Confused Commander
Dear Confused Commander,
Your daughter sounds like a master negotiator. Negotiating is a great skill, and you want to give her ample opportunity to learn how to negotiate in ways that feel respectful to everyone involved. And you want to make sure she understands she holds power in the family, but she does not hold as much power as her parents. I like using visuals with kids, and stacking Lego bricks into towers can be a great way to demonstrate power. Mom and Dad both have power ten bricks high. Susie, age 10 has five bricks, Janie, age 7 has four bricks, and Debbie, age 1 has one brick. As we get older, we get more power coupled with more responsibility.
I recommend you let your daughter know clearly when it is okay to negotiate by using clear phrases: “Sure, we are willing to negotiate” or “There will be no negotiating right now. You need to do exactly as we asked.” This way she will get clarity about when she can try to negotiate with you. Areas for negotiation are at your discretion–if she has played outside and in creative ways and you have time to let her watch 5 more minutes of TV, you could let her negotiate for more TV time. If you want her to clean up her toys but have plenty of time to wait, you can allow her to negotiate to clean them up in half an hour instead of right now. You can help her learn to communicate respectfully, by modelling for her:
“Time to clean up your toys.”
“Mom–NO!! I don’t want to!”
“Would you like to try and negotiate with me about when you clean them up? You can clean them up now, or we can wait a few minutes. How many minutes would you like to wait until you clean them up?”
“Well, we can’t wait 200 minutes, but I would be okay for waiting 30 minutes. Would you like to clean them up in 30 minutes instead of right now?”
“Yes. I’ll clean them in 30 minutes.”
“Okay. That’s fine. But if you argue or don’t clean them up in 30 minutes, you will have a consequence. You will lose out on i-pod time tonight if you don’t clean them up in 30 minutes. Let’s set a timer for 30 minutes here on the stove. That way you can see how much time you have left. And when the timer goes off, you will know it’s time to clean up your toys.”
If you are clear and consistent, she will learn how to negotiate in appropriate ways. You want to parent for your daughter, and not for yourself. Don’t let your stress or exhaustion lead your parenting….that’s when we end up sending confusing messages to our kids about how much power they have and what’s okay and not okay. Let each interaction be about what she can learn or develop in the moment. No parent can do this 100% of the time….we are all human…but if you aim to parent for your children instead of for yourself 90% of the time, you’ll give your kids the consistency that they need.
One parting thought: I would reframe the idea of “pick your battles.” We are not battling our kids. We are leading them, guiding them, and providing them with experiences to learn and grow. I would instead suggest that you “pick your teachable moments.”
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.