Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Being a confident leader for your child is a difficult balancing act between allowing autonomy and taking control. It’s one of the hardest skills I have had to learn as a parent. I’m continually trying to decide what to drop and what to hold and how hard to hold it. There are so many things to consider including time of day, mood, personality, age of the child, how practiced in confident leadership you are, and where you are at that moment. For example, opportunities and capacity for leadership and boundaries vary depending on if you are at home or a restaurant. In this post, I hope to uncover some of the nuances of cooperating with and leading children with confidence, respect, and trust. By the end, you will be better at knowing when to invite cooperation and when to take charge. Also, you will learn some cooperation strategies to use when the time is right.
Decide if this behavior/thing is non-negotiable.
It is important to decide in advance what is non-negotiable and what is negotiable because the level of decision-making and responsibility becomes heavy on the adult with non-negotiables. In general, children can make decisions about and be responsible for negotiable things. So what are non-negotiables?
Non-negotiables typically involve danger and safety but they can also involve social and family norms. These are things like seat belts, helmets, running into the road, touching a hot stove, hurting other people. They can also be things like respect and boundaries for other people. For example, in my home toy “snatching” or being too close to someone when they have asked for space are non-negotiables.
Try to cut your number of non-negotiables to the bare minimum. We can do this by having developmentally appropriate expectations and environments for children. We also do this by stopping at each tense or combative moment and asking ourselves, “Do I really need to hold this limit?”
The other day I realized I was getting into a power struggle with my 3-year-old over how many books we were going to read. He was demanding that we read four and I had started the evening by telling him we would read three books. My fear (“He thinks he can walk all over me and tell me what to do.” “If I give in this time he will always want more, more, more.”) and my pride, (“I must hold limits, I must have boundaries, this will teach him how to respect himself and me!”) were getting in the way of my reason and intuition. When things were about to peak, I stopped to ask myself, “Do I really need to hold this limit?” I realized the answer was, “Nope.” So, I said to him, “I changed my mind, sure we can read four books, I would love to!” He was delighted and we had a smooth calm routine the rest of the night.
If it is a non-negotiable, connect then take charge. Do not give chances, do not give directions, and do not problem-solve. The adult in charge is responsible to hold the boundary for non-negotiable. A child is NEVER responsible to “listen” or “behave” when faced with safety or boundary issues. Let me repeat: It is NOT a child’s job to keep themselves and others safe around danger or boundaries, it is the adult’s job. Here are some examples:
Woah! You are a fast runner! The problem is, this is a parking lot and it’s my job to keep you safe. You can hold my hand or I can put you in the stroller.
I see you digging and playing with the shovel. Sand needs to stay away from people’s faces. You can move over here for more space, or I can take the toys until you are ready.
You seem excited about playing today, I can tell you want to play with her. It looks like she needs a bit of space, I’m going to move you over a bit, and we will see what she says. “Would you like some space?” Proceed to respect whatever answer she gives.
For more support in creating and maintaining healthy boundaries in your family life, I recommend The Awakened Family by, Shefali Tsabary Ph.D. This book was revolutionary me.
Connect before correct
Move close to the child and get down on their level. As much as possible try to communicate, “I see you. I value where you are in this moment.” As the adult in charge, you can see, validate, and value the child AND still need to correct or move them along. Here are some examples:
Refuse to wash hands (child runs to climb on something to get away from you)
Adult: (connect) Wow! You’re a great climber! I see you got up high. (wait for their response and respond with empathy before correcting)
Child: looks at you and laughs
Adult: Yeah, climbing is really fun, I love climbing high too!
Adult: (correct) It’s time to wash hands. Would you like to climb down by yourself or shall I help you down?
Time to eat
Adult: (connect) You seem upset about coming to dinner.
Child: No! I don’t want to come!
Adult: You don’t want to come. That makes sense. You have been working for a while on this road. I can see why you don’t want to stop.
Child: Yeah, I’m not going!
Adult: (correct) I love when we eat together as a family. It’s nice being with you. Do you want to sit or stand at the dinner table? Or maybe you have another idea that would work.
Time to clean up and go home
Adult: (connect) You made a cool carwash and had so much fun with the cars today.
Child: Yeah, here’s where the cars are getting clean!
Adult: Oh cool! Will you show me?
Child: The cars go here like this then woosh the water goes down!
Adult: (correct) That is such a fun way to play with the cars! It’s time to go now, do you want help putting these back on the shelf or would you like to do it yourself?
Adult: (connect and correct simultaneously, step between the children, or block the hit) You seem upset about something; I’d love to help. I will not let you hit.
Child: Give it back! I want that!
Adult: You want the toy back. That makes sense. I’m going to hold this for a while. I will give it back after we figure this out.
Being playful eases tension and sends a message to the child; your world and interests matter to me. Watch what they are doing and carry it over to the necessary tasks of the day.
If they are playing dinosaurs before clean-up time, you could say: These dinosaurs are hungry! They want to eat the tools! Come on! The hungry dinos will eat the tools to clean them up
If you see them flying down the stairs when it’s time to go: Do you want to fly like an airplane to the car with me too?
If they love Frozen: Let’s meet at the ice castle for bath time Queen ______.
Making silly voices in weird sounds or accents is always a great way to engage playfully.
Collaborative and Proactive Solutions from Ross Greene
This order is important. Do not voice your concerns until step two, and only offer solutions after you give the child a chance to think up solutions first. Also, this flow works best when you are calm and not engaged in the drama. For example, you could bring up a bedtime issue at lunchtime the next day. This is because children do not have the skills to talk things out when they are upset. That does not mean you cannot do problem-solving in the moment, you still can, it’s just a bit harder and the adult must stay even more calm and patient. In fact, the examples that follow include in-the-moment conversations. But seriously, it will benefit you to take the time to collaborate away from the "moment".
Offer the problem then hear them out regardless of how “wrong” or “irrational” they are. If possible, repeat what they say. (Repeating is a great first step when you are learning how to listen to a child)
Adult: “You seem upset about washing hands. What’s up?”
Child: “I don’t like it, it is cold!”
Adult: “Oh, you don’t like it and it’s cold.”
Adult: “You really don’t want to clean up. What’s up?”
Child: “I’m having fun! I’m not going to clean!”
Adult: “You’re having fun, you’re not going to clean.
Now, ask if there is anything else you should know.
“So you don’t like it and it’s cold. Is there anything else I should know?”
"Seems like you're having so much fun it's hard to clean up right now."
2. Voice Adult concerns, only after you have actively listened.
“Washing hands is important because I don’t want you to get sick.”
“We need to keep our home clean, so we have room to play.”
3. Ask the child for ideas about solutions.
“What do you need from me to help you wash your hands?”
“Do you have some ideas about how clean-up should go?"
For more on how to develop Collaborative and Proactive Solutions with your child visit: https://www.livesinthebalance.org/about Also, I highly recommend reading the book Raising Human Beings. (Linked here just for you). It will give you so many examples and tools for collaborating with children.
I see the delicate balance with control and autonomy between adult and child as constantly evolving, even a living breathing thing. It needs constant presence, acknowledgment, and consideration. We must be intentional in creating our boundaries then conscious of how they are working for us and our child. I know when we let trust, respect, and intuition lead the way we are generally driving in the right direction. The road to confident leadership is tough but when we do our children will benefit in profound ways. Keep going everybody, you got this!