As a grandmother, I think too many parents these days are asking their children to cooperate rather than simply telling them what they expect. It sounds like they're constantly negotiating with their children.
Some years back, three of my children attended the same preschool class. Arriving a few minutes early to pick them up, I could observe how the other parents handled their children.
What I heard confirms your sentiment. Routinely parents would query their kids: “Are you ready to go now? Come on, let's put our coat on, okay? Why don't you say goodbye to your teacher?”
Now such questioning provides nowhere near enough evidence to diagnose that Mom has a case of parentus maximus wimpus. In fact, I would guess that most of these parents were just wanting to convey a pleasant, “Let's cooperate, okay?” tone. To the extent that they got cooperation, I would never question their style.
What I saw from the kids, however, was not cooperation. They didn't say, “Why thank you, Mother, for asking so sweetly. It just makes me want to listen all the more.” Instead, their reaction was “You're not really all that serious, are you?”
Putting expectations into question form is appealing. It does sound rather gentle and less bossy. Overall it just makes us parents seem like nicer people, don't you think?
But traps lie beneath the surface benefits. First, questions invite resistance. If Sherlock takes the question literally, he could respond, “No, I'm not ready to go now. It's not our coat. It's my coat. You can put yours on if you want. And I don't feel like saying goodbye to my teacher.”
Second, discipline by question sends a message most parents don't mean to send. It makes non-negotiable expectations sound open to discussion. I mean, does Taylor really have a choice about putting on his coat and leaving?
Third, and this is potentially the biggest danger, if a child senses, even incorrectly, that a parent may not mean what she says, the child is likely to ignore or resist the request, thus pushing the parent into command mode.
In and of themselves, commands are not bad. The trouble comes from the struggle to get cooperation after implying it wasn't all that important. This leads to frustrations, emotions and volume. In essence, discipline by question can easily evolve into bossy, mean discipline, the very thing the parent was unconsciously trying to avoid in the first place.
Certainly every mom and dad has the right to discipline as they see fit. And discipline by question can work for some kids — mostly the sweet natured Chastity and Oxford types.
Overall, though, my experience is that it's better to state your expectations quietly and confidently from the very start. It leaves little room for doubt. It reinforces your role as authority. In the long run, it really is a nicer way to discipline.
So why don't we all just try to do a little better on this, okay?
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.
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