What most of us know best are the ends of the spectrum: authoritarian parenting or permissiveness. Both are "win-lose" options in which one person gets what he or she wants at the expense of someone else. An authoritarian parent controls by disempowering; a permissive parent gives up control, often in frustration when authoritarian strategies backfire or stop working.
Either approach will cause problems and unnecessary stress in the relationship, even when the approach seems to be working. For example, kids with authoritarian parents may be cooperative, but they often have difficulty making decisions or self-managing in the absence of authority. They become vulnerable to peer pressure because they are used to being told what to do and believe that their safety depends on their compliance. Plus, at a certain age, usually when the need for power or peer approval outweighs the need for parental approval, your child's fear of your power or reaction may not be strong enough for you to get what you want in this way. At this point, if you see your options in a win-lose framework, you either get more aggressive or you simply give up-neither of which create a home environment that enhances relationships or encourages responsible or cooperative behavior from your kids.
The bottom line is this: Children need limits and structure. They cannot feel safe or secure without them. At the same time-and this starts, in most children, some time around their second birthday-children need power and autonomy within those limits. This is how they learn independence and self-management and, little by little, how to function in the world.
So the challenge for parents is about establishing a win-win relationship with their children, one in which the parent is the ultimate authority, but one in which that authority (or parental power) does not rely upon disempowering the children. In other words, how can you meet a child's need for power within limits that won't drive you crazy? Or, more precisely, how can both you and your child "win"?
One of the easiest ways to create win-win is to offer choices, again within limits you can live with. Asking your kids to pick a vegetable to go with dinner (from a set of available options) can turn a veggie-hater into a far less fussy eater. Passing around a chore chart and allowing kids to choose the tasks they want (or allowing them to choose two out of three assigned chores to be completed by a particular time) can reduce a whole lot of conflict in this arena. And I've seen more than one tantrum averted by parents who let their kids decide which sweater to wear on a chilly day, or whether to wear the sweat suit to play outside or the sundress to play indoors.
Win-win allows you to respond more calmly and peacefully when your kids resist or rebel. One of my favorite stories was shared by a single mom with two teenage daughters who ended a months-long, no-win conflict over the girls not cleaning their bathroom. Threats and punishments had not worked and by this point the entire relationship was clouded by animosity over this one issue. Since the mother was the only one who seemed to be bothered by the mess, she offered to clean the girls' bathroom-but only if they were willing to do some of her chores so she'd have time to take on the one they hated so much. The girls were so relieved that they willingly took over the laundry and vacuuming and even offered to wash the family car, too. The immediate goal was achieved: The chores were getting done and peace was restored. But more importantly, by seeking a win-win solution, this parent modeled the value and the means of getting what we want without hurting one another.
Negotiating is another way to create win-win, and it has the additional benefit of getting your boundaries across and generating commitment from your kids at the same time. A 16-year who had just gotten his license and asked to borrow the car for an upcoming party responded impatiently, when his mother asked when he was coming home, "I don't know. Whenevery the party's over, Mom!" Rather than blow up at her son, the mother replied, "That won't work for me." (Isn't this nicer than, "What! Are you crazy?" or yelling at him for being inconsiderate and trying to take advantage?) She said that she needed for them to agree to a specific time before she would give him the keys. When he proposed 4:00 a.m. she repeated, "That won't work for me. I was thinking more like, hm, 8:00 p.m." (When you're negotiating, start low, she advised.)
They finally agreed to midnight with the understanding that if he brought the car home on time-and with at least a half-tank of gas-that he would obviously be responsible enough to get the privilege again next weekend. If not, they'd wait a month until he was a little more mature. The incentive was so great for the kid to "win" (that is, get the car again next weekend) that he left every event early, just in case, and rarely got home later than 11:30-so Mom "won," too.
Negotiating and offering choices are not means of giving in-they are ways of countering resistance with other, often more attractive alternatives in order to accomplish approximately the same things: "Well, if you don't want to do this particular chore (or wear this particular tee shirt or eat this particular meal), here are the other options available to you."
Of course there will be many things your children will want or want to do that will not be negotiable. But if what they're asking doesn't pose a threat to anyone's safety or health, isn't illegal, doesn't inconvenience or create additional problems for anyone, doesn't violate your family's rules or values, you'll probably find your efforts well invested, particularly when you have the time to negotiate and wait for a decision.
Positive choices end up giving your children some control over their lives within limits you determine and, at the same time, build responsibility, commitment and decision-making skills. These techniques for creating win-win have the more immediate benefits of increasing cooperative and desirable behavior and reducing conflict or the kids' needs to act out, either to get control in the situation or to prove you can't control them. Plus, just think of how reasonable you'll seem-a nice alternative to being cranky or over-indulgent-and how well you'll sleep!
Guidelines for offering choices
Choices encourage cooperation through input and empowerment. They build responsibility and commitment, and communicate respect for the needs of all concerned. Offer choices to encourage your children to perform a particular behavior they are not currently demonstrating.
Choices can also help prevent disruptive behaviors, particularly those that happen when kids need to gain control or prove that nobody controls them.
Presenting options in a positive manner. Be careful that the choice doesn't end up coming out as "do it or else."
Make sure that all options you offer are acceptable. Avoid setting your kids up to choose the "right" option or read your mind. Offer no "wrong" choices: if you don't want your kids to choose something, don't make it an option. (If you want them to choose fruit for dessert, offer two or three different kinds of fruit, not a choice between fruit and, say, their favorite candy bar.)
Start simple. If your child is having difficulty making decisions, it may be that there are too many options or that the limits are too broad or unclear. (It may also be that your child only feels safe if he picks the "right" option, and is afraid of disappointing you. See above.)
If your kids have a hard time with even simple choices, add another limit, for example, by asking them to choose within a certain amount of time (after which you get to help him choose). Be patient. Some young children and especially accomplished order-takers need time and practice to develop confidence in their ability to choose.
Increase options as your kids can handle them, either by widening the range of choices you offer or by making the options themselves more complex.
Depending on your goals, you might leave room for your kids to change their minds if they are disappointed with a choice they've made. If time and management require your kids to make a choice and stick with it, make that clear when you present the available options.
As they become more capable, encourage your kids to participate in negotiating or setting up choices whenever possible.
If your kids suggest a choice that does not set well with you, tell them your concerns and ask if they can come up with something that will not create whatever problem you anticipate. If something is just plain non-negotiable, say so, but also look at other options available within those limits.
Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.