The Power of Choice
In a relationship, choice is power. The more choices you have, the more ways you have to influence the other person. If you have no choice, then you have no power.
Thus, in the beginning, your infant feels powerless. By comparison, you appear extremely powerful because you have so many choices as an adult to determine what the child can or cannot have and when he can have it, while the child has far fewer choices for ways to influence you.
The discovery by the infant that two behaviors — crying and smiling — are connected with getting your attention begins to empower the boy or girl with a sense of influence in the relationship. From here forward, your child's growth is a process of gathering more power of choice as he or she journeys from dependence on you in infancy to independence of you as a young adult.
Your final goal as a parent is to work yourself out of a job, at last turning over decision-making responsibility for the conduct of his or her life to your grown child, who can live by independent choices (and not your own). Until then, you are using your power of discipline to help the child gather that responsibility in appropriate and constructive ways.
To do this, you need to keep the upper hand by having more choices for influencing the child than he or she has for influencing you. You need to keep the power of most choices on your side. This proposal may sound easy to do because you are the adult and you control so much that the child wants, but it is not.
When Misbehavior Continues
Sometimes, in the normal course of your child's growing up, you will experience times when your child continuously misbehaves, defying all your disciplinary efforts. For example, you can't seem to get your daughter to stop throwing tantrums when she is denied something she wants. This is hard enough to deal with at home, but consider a tantrum she throws in the afternoon at the supermarket, with other shoppers staring. She screams, and none of your explaining, orders, or pleading gets you anywhere, and finally you let her have the candy you forbade her to have, and she quiets down immediately.
Your child got what she wanted — the candy. You got what you wanted — the end of the tantrum. But now your daughter knows that throwing a tantrum will get her what she wants — while you feel that by giving in, you are encouraging this misbehavior to happen again, which is true. “I tried everything!” you think. “I tried everything, but nothing works. I've just run out of choices. There's nothing I can do!” Who has the most influence now? A power reversal has taken place.
One way you can get your son or daughter to cooperate with you while still giving him or her a measure of control is to offer a choice within a choice. Say, “Here is what I want. Here are three ways you can make it happen. You can choose which way.”
So what is the solution? First, you have to realize that you haven't tried everything. You have allowed frustration and discouragement over a hard problem to wear you down. What you have lost is the will to try. To get that back, reach out for social support from family or friends who can encourage you to keep on trying.
Use that support to brainstorm and replenish your supply of possible disciplinary choices. No parent has ever “tried everything,” because there are simply too many choices a parent can try. The most powerful disciplinary choice parents have is to keep trying different choices until they find a choice that seems to work, at least for a while.
A friend can offer some alternatives you didn't think to try. If your daughter throws a tantrum again in the grocery store when you tell her she can't have any candy, try singing a song to yourself. Try smiling and giving your child a hug. Try ignoring the noise and keep shopping. Try asking, “What fun thing shall we do when we get home?” Will any of these tactics work? Who knows? But at least you now have more options.
Children Need Choices, Too
The other side of the choice dilemma is the child's. Because parents control so many circumstantial choices in her life, a young child can sometimes feel as if she has no choice at all except to do what she is told. She can feel powerless and angry because of that, and may become resistant of her parents' requests in order to assert some measure of personal choice. This is what a lot of the child's resistance is about — gathering power of choice in a negative way.
Parents often become self-defeating at this point. They use punishment to take away further choice in the mistaken belief that this method will improve cooperation. But it won't. A resistant child needs more choices, not fewer.
Even though parents need to keep the most choices on their side, they need to be sure the child is given enough room for choice to be willing to cooperate with what parents want. Cooperation from the child requires allowing some self-determination for the child. For example, you tell the child what help you need, but within prescribed time limits, you let the child decide when to get the task done. “I would like you to mow the yard. Sometime this weekend before 3:00 P.M. on Sunday is fine with me. The exact time is up to you.”
Giving your child a choice makes it easier for him to give you consent. You've showed that you respect him, and not only have you not lost any of your influence as a parent, you've actually increased it.