Getting kids to do what you want them to do, and often what they need to do, can be challenging. Part of the strategy to move them in the direction you want, as a parent, is how you use language and communicate with them. Often strategic communication is required as kids will “play” you and can easily get the upper hand. One of the developmental tasks kids face is individuation and there is often no better way that opposing parents. Following are some simple scenarios which might help you get an idea about how strategic communication can work. Comments in parenthesis will explain the strategy involved in each communication. The scene is a parent trying to get their child to go do their homework. The scene, however, could be just about anything a parent wants or needs their child to do.
Parent: Go do your homework
(this is a typical scenario. The first problem is the parent is giving an order which is very easy for the child to oppose. Although there are better ways to initiate this request, let’s take this one a bit further using strategic communication)
Parent: Are you telling me you don’t want to do your homework now or that you don’t want to do it at all? (Here the parent is presenting a choice and depending on which answer is given will determine the next move)
Child: I don’t want to do it at all
Parent: At all today, or at all at anytime, ever? (again, a choice is presented)
Child: At all….ever
Parent: That puts me into a tough position because as your parent, I have obligations to make sure you are completing your school assignments. How would you suggest I do that? (This can be a bold move but does two things: it relays to the child the need of the parent in requesting the homework be completed and also put the child in an altered position where he/she might gain some different perspective)
Child: I don’t know
Parent: Well, let’s say you had a friend who had a tool you needed to fix your bike and he didn’t want to give it to you, how would you get it from him?
Child: I’d go take it
Parent: And if you couldn’t find it, if he hid it?
Child: I don’t know
Parent: Would you ask him first?
Child: Yeah, sure…
Parent: And, you would like him to give it you, right?
Parent: And if he said “no,” then what…and remember, the too is hidden, you can’t just go get it…?
Child: I don’t know
Parent: Well, that’s kind of where I am; I need you to do some homework and yet I don’t know how to get you to do it? I need your help in this.
(This kind of direct, honest communication can work quite well and it is not at all uncommon for a child at this time to begin to shift gears and work with the parent, as long as the parent does not resort to demands which the child will tend to oppose, which is how the dialogue started out. Reasoning, understanding, asking strategic questions and even some self disclosure by the parent can help the child see things a bit differently and defuse the oppositional stance.
But, let’s go back to the beginning and see how we can use statements and questions to start of the request without creating the oppositional tendencies…
Parent: Do you have a moment? I’d like to ask you something?
(By beginning this way, the parent is honoring the individuality of the child and requesting time to talk; this is teaching respect by example as the parent is respecting the child’s time)
Parent: I know you have some homework and I know it needs to get done before tomorrow, when do you think would be a good time to do it?
(The parent is placing responsibility on the child and asking his/her opinion and by default asking him/her to make a decision about when the homework will be completed; children often respond very well to being treated with respect and being given choices, it augments their developing sense of individuality and autonomy.
Child: I don’t want to do it
Parent: I understand that, and yet it does need to get done. Would you like to do it now or after dinner. You know the rules, no tv until the homework is done….
(The choice has now been narrowed down to just two options and a household rule has been introduced as a reminder-and incentive)
Child: After dinner
Let’s look at another positive way the scenario could start…
Parent: When will your homework be finished by tonight?
(This is an open ended question and often not as effective as question with only a couple of options to choose from, but sometimes it can be useful)
Child: I don’t know.
Parent: Will it be completed tonight? (The parent is now going to engage in a series of questions to narrow down the details. This kind of questioning can be engaging and it can also indicate to the child that the parent cares and is involved)
Parent: Before you go to bed?
Parent: Before you take your shower?
Parent: Before you watch television
Parent: Before you talk on the phone?
Child: Uh, no…
Parent: Before you finish snacking on your chips I see there next to you?
Child: Uh, no…
Parent: So, let me get this straight….your homework will be completed sometime before you shower, watch tv and go to bed, but sometime after you talk on the phone and finish eating those chips…is that right?
Parent: Okay, that’s sounds good….
There are so many different ways to use language to communicate in such a way that opposition can be avoided. Negotiation can be part of it, however, strategic communication is the key. As a final piece of advice, if what you are saying is not getting the responses you want, then try saying something different. Use a different verbal strategy.
Ken Fields is a nationally certified licensed mental health counselor. With over 25 years in the mental health field, he has worked as as an individual and family therapist throughout school districts and within communities, a crisis intervention counselor, a clinical supervisor and an administrator in a human service agency. He has taught classes in meditation, visualization, goal setting, self-image psychology, anger and stress management, negotiation, mediation and communication, crisis intervention, and parenting. Mr. Fields specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Family Systems Therapy and Communication Coaching.
As a practicing counseling psychologist, Mr. Fields brings decades of specialized training and applied skills to his work. He now provides quality online counseling and can be found at http://www.openmindcounseling.com and http://www.kasamba.com/ken-fields