"Controlling" Your Child

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Unless you belong to a culture where filial obedience is automatic and adult authority is absolute, you will have children who sometime willfully oppose your wishes. It is to these parents to whom this Psychological Update is directed.

The question is: when faced with a son or daughter who won't do what they want or keeps on doing what they don't want, how can parents control their child?

The bad news is they can't control their child because the only direct power to which the boy or girl is subject is his or her own decision making, not their own. For parents to get their way, the child must ELECT to go along with what they want, hence the equation: COMPLIANCE = COMMAND + CONSENT. The job of parents is to keep working for consent.

The good news is that there are effective actions to influence consent, and if parents will use these strategies wisely they can get their way with a stubborn child more often than not. What are some strategies? Consider five.

1) REASON is the power of using explanation to persuade. "Here is what I need to have you do and this is why." Rules without reasons are often resisted by willful children and rebellious adolescents who resent arbitrary authority. A reason can provide justification for going along. "Okay, I see why that's important."

Reasons from parents can also invite arguments from adolescents who like to disagree. However, even in this case, reason can serve the parents well because by getting an argument the child gets some of what he or she wants - establishing standing in the process of disagreement before compliance is given. This is the compromise: he or she gets to have a say and then they get to have their way. Sometimes the price of consent is respecting opposition by agreeing to hear the child's objections out.

2) SUPERVISION is the power of pursuit. "We will keep after you and after you about this until you do what we ask." Parents use insistence to wear resistance down, the child finally giving consent to get parents off his or her case. (Children know relentless insistence works because they often use it, or a variation like whining, to wear parental resistance down, turning an initial "No" into an ultimate "Yes.")
Supervision is nagging and nagging is honorable work. It needs to be done. It shows parents are sufficiently serious about the child taking care of business that they will vote with their actions, not letting up until consent is grudgingly given. Since nagging is the drudge work of parenting, if there are two parents it needs to be shared, otherwise one parent will appear "mean" and the other not, an unfair distinction that can become divisive of the marriage.

In addition, supervision is too important to mix with anger because becoming emotionally upset at the child only ends up empowering the boy or girl. When the parent loses control to get control the child ends up in control. "You make me so angry!" only communicates that the child has been given unhealthy power to control parental emotion. The message supervision needs to send is resolution: "I won't let up about this until you get it done, and I won't let your delay tactics upset me." Therefore, if parental nagging is getting them frustrated, parents need to call a time out, separate, cool down, and then resume pursuit of the child once more.

3) STRUCTURE is the power of punishment. "In consequence of violating a major family rule, there is a penalty you must pay." To show they mean what they say, parents should not threaten what they are not prepared to carry out. This is why they need to avoid punishing in anger. They need to separate any expression of anger from deciding on a punishment, or else two unhelpful outcomes are likely to occur. First, the child will think he or she is only being punished because the parent is angry, and so miss understanding the connection between offense and consequence. And second, angry parents are likely to unrealistically punish ("You're grounded for the next year!") and then have to retract and modify the penalty once they have emotionally sobered up. The purpose of punishment is simply to apply a consequence that may cause the child to rethink an infraction and consent to not repeat it again.

Punishment with the verbal or emotional or physical intent to do injury (attacking with criticism, scaring with threat, or inflicting bodily pain) risks having a counterproductive effect upon the parent/child relationship, building not respect for authority but grievance, resentment, humiliation, and contempt. "Just because they're bigger doesn't mean they have the right to hurt me when I've done wrong! Wait 'til I'm older, I'll show you!"

The most common punishment parents choose is deprivation, taking away some freedom, like grounding from social contact or denying access to electronic entertainment. Kept short term, deprivation can make a symbolic point, but in the extreme it is risky. Strip a child of all desirable freedoms and he or she has nothing left to lose, and parents have nothing left to take way.

The most powerful consequence is not deprivation but reparation. "As result of breaking the rules, you have to do additional household tasks to work the violation off, work that must be accomplished before you get to do anything else you want." Parents assert far more authority with reparation because doing work for parents requires more energy than simply doing without. In general, reparation works for better with a willful child than deprivation that only heightens frustration and increases anger. The reason parents don't like using reparation is that it takes supervision. It feels easier just to take something away. Deprivation is easier, but it is far less effective than reparation.

Finally, parents need to maintain the distinction between dealing with aggravating resistance (delaying doing chores) and dealing with unacceptable violations (sneaking out after hours.) Chores are a supervisory issue. Punishment is reserved for major infractions like escaping the house for illicit freedom after hours.

4) WORKING THE EXCHANGE POINTS is the power of exploiting the child's dependence on the parents to gain cooperation. "Before I do what you want, you must first do what I asked."

Children continually rely on parents for all kinds of basic supports: services like providing meals and transportation, resources like using the TV and getting money, and permissions like having friends over or going over there. Each occasion of need or want is an exchange point that parents can exploit if compliance with some previous request has not been met. "I'd be happy to drive you to the store, but first pick up your dirty laundry like I asked." Replies the child: "I promise I will when we get back." No. Promises are false currency with the resistant child. Only performance counts. The parent withholds what the child wants until consent to a previous request has been given.
Also at issue here is teaching the principle of mutuality. "Family relationships must be conducted to meet needs of both parties, not just one. This is why you need to do for me just as I do for you." Parents who do not train their child to live in two-way relationships (each giving to and doing for the other) often end up resenting a son or daughter who acts like his or her own needs are the only ones that matter. Even worse, they send a "spoiled" young person out into the world who is too self-centered for his or her own good, and who painfully discovers that what parents allowed, other people will not tolerate.

5) APPRECIATION is the power of approval. "Thank you for getting your room picked up." Even if it has taken a steadfast parent two hours of reasoning, supervising, and working the exchange points to get a ten-minute task finally accomplished, the exhausted mother or father needs to thank the child for compliance. Otherwise, the child will complain about what is often true: "You never appreciate what I do!" Parents should always reward good behavior with appreciation because by doing so they encourage further consent.

The animal trainers have it right. If you want to shape desirable behavior, rewarding the good with positive attention is infinitely more powerful than punishing the bad with a negative consequence because animals and people are more motivated by pleasure seeking than they are by pain avoiding. Children want to please their parents, and that includes the adolescent child who often acts like their good opinion doesn't matter, when in fact it always does. Negative behavior in the child sets a trap for parents who get mired in negativity themselves and so forget to use the shaping power of positive attention they possess.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2002. For permission to use, contact the author
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