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Don't tell me what to do

Advice for the testy child

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Nobody likes to be told what to do. As babies morph into toddlers and realize the power of free will, they become experts at opposing orders. We say, "Put that down!" or "Go to bed!" They throw the toy and stay awake. When parents ask me about these behaviors, I suggest that they never tell their kids what to do. Instead, I recommend that they follow this simple formula: Empathy, Rule-statement, and Action (or ERA). It works this way:

Empathy. Emotions come before reason, so we have to begin with empathy. Besides, empathy is disarming. Start by saying, "I know you are..." followed by a feeling ("angry"; or "not the slightest bit tired"). When we are upset with our kids, starting with empathy is good self-discipline.

Rule-statement. Kids have a deep sense of democracy. They want rules to apply to everybody. Rule-statement must be impersonal and pervasive or our kids take it personally. Time is a good basis for a rule: "It's dinner time," or "bed time." Use phrases you want your kids to have stuck in their brains forever: "We don't hurt people." Sometimes it is hard to know the rules we want to apply. Our kids make us figure them out. That's what kids are for.

Action. This is paramount. We don't tell our kids what they are going to do. They are entirely responsible for their own behavior (and we want them to be). We tell them what we are about to do to them. "So I am going to turn off the TV and put you to bed." No threats allowed. Just do it.

The message is simple and clear: I care about your feelings and we all follow rules and I am going to act with authority in a way that affects you unless you quickly come up with an acceptable alternative. This formula works pretty well on our kids. Unfortunately, if we are successful, our kids eventually use it on us.

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