I know this sounds odd. After all, you probably feel you tell them what to do much of the time. That’s asserting yourself, isn’t it?
Actually, no. That’s controlling them. And the problem with trying to control our children is that we have limited, and rapidly diminishing power to do so. Even with helpless babies, we can’t control when they wake, sleep, cry or soil their diapers. As children become physically stronger and more capable, we lose the ability to control what they say, where they go, who their friends are and what they do. Of course, we can punish them if they do things we don’t like, but if they’re willing to endure that punishment, then they are truly out of our control. Parents who see things going wrong will sometimes escalate, applying more intense punishments in an effort to bring the child back under control. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but in either case, it generates conflict and ill feeling on both sides.
It seem an uncomfortable dilemma: Either try to make your children do what you want them to do, with the associated conflict and rebellion, or let them have their own way and watch them mess up their lives, perhaps irretrievably. Many parents, particularly those with teenagers, will zigzag between these options, trying to enforce their will when they feel the situation demands, and ignoring behaviors that don’t meet the standard of ‘intolerable’.
There is, however, a third way, one that doesn’t involve abdicating and at the same time will reduce your sense of frustration and anger at a child who resists doing what you want. And that third way is assertiveness.
The first rule of assertiveness is to understand that your child’s behavior is largely (and as they grow physically stronger) entirely outside of your control. You can scream at your child, take away privileges, shut them in their room, even (for some parents) administer corporal punishment, but the child can choose to endure that and still refuse to modify their behavior. Perhaps that sounds upsetting, but let me suggest that it is actually liberating. If you can’t control your child’s behavior, then you are not responsible for that behavior. Ultimately, the child is responsible for themselves — and they’re the ones that have to live with the consequences of what they do.
Which leads to the second rule of assertiveness: that you have full control over your own actions. You may not be able to make your child do what you want, but you can impose consequences on behavior that you wish they would change. For example, one parent tried for months to teach his son to say thank you — without prompting — when given something. Eventually the father told him that it was no longer his responsibility to remind the boy, but that any failure to thank others for a gift would result in confiscation of the item. A birthday present was offered and received without thanks — and the present went into the bin. The father showed no anger and said nothing beyond “I’m sorry, but this is what I promised to do if you forgot to say thank you.” The child became hysterical of course — but never forgot to say thank you again.
A personal example: Many decades ago, when my mother’s attempts to get my sibling and I to stop fighting failed month after month, she announced that if it didn’t stop she was going to move out of the house to stay with a friend for a while. The fights ceased immediately.
In both cases the message was similar: you can choose to continue the behavior that upsets me, but if you do, my reaction will be such-and-such. And in both cases the message was delivered calmly and respectfully, with a recognition of the right of the other person to decline to change.
The third rule of assertiveness is that while you can’t make your child change behavior, you can certainly ask. The vast majority of interactions don’t require anything beyond this. You have every right to ask your child to be quiet, not interrupt, do their homework, clean up after themselves and so forth, and most children will comply most of the time. It’s only when you feel yourself turning into a nag or a broken record that you might want to consider alternatives. Here are some assertive ways of responding to common situations:
“I feel we’ve gotten into a pattern where you are late for school and I am constantly chasing you to catch the bus. I don’t like the way I sound when I nag you, so I’m going to stop. If you miss the bus, you’ll have to take a taxi and that will have to come out of your allowance.”
“When we go out as a family on the weekend, the two of you quarrel so much that your father and I don’t enjoy ourselves. The next time you quarrel, we will stop whatever we’re doing, come home, drop you off and your father and I will go out alone to spend some quality time together.”
“I can’t physically stop you from going out with friends and coming home after a long night of partying. But I am very concerned for your safety. If this continues to happen, then I will consider sending you to boarding school where your behavior can be more closely monitored.”
Perhaps this all sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. But there are huge benefits to this approach. First, your child learns to control their own behavior. They have a choice — to continue as before and endure the consequences, or to change. They’re not changing because they’ve been forced to; instead, they’ve been given alternative outcomes and have decided on their own which suits them better. Second, they feel respected. You are telling them that they have a choice in their behavior, and that you have a choice in your behavior. There is influence in both directions, but you are respecting their right to choose. Third, it gives the child a chance to experience the real world, where actions have consequences. Fourth, your own level of frustration goes down as you give up the need to control another individual, and focus instead on your own actions. Fifth, by acknowledging your child’s right to choose their own behavior and even the right to endure negative consequences, you are helping them experience a sense of self-efficacy, and through that, improving their self-esteem. And lastly, this will reduce the level of conflict between you, whether that conflict is expressed through nagging, threatening, begging, crying or shouting.
For more information on becoming assertive, read “The Assertiveness Workbook” by Randy Paterson.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also want to read Passive, Aggressive or Assertive? Respecting Others While Respecting Yourself