For all of you who have children past the age of eight – and for some of you even younger – I want you to know that there are those of us out there who completely understand the battle you are fighting in balancing your child’s need to gain their independence and your need to take care of and keep them safe. At this age, children begin – to some degree – to resent the influence that parents have on their lives. There are many things that they can do on their own, but there are still things that we insist on doing for them – or on providing supervision when they participate. We are absolutely right to do this! But knowing that you are right when your child is absolutely certain that you are wrong is little comfort or benefit to the ensuing difficulties.
One technique that works for both parent and child is the concept of structured choices. If the parent can give a child a limited choice where most of the “margin for error” has been eliminated, then the child can feel as if the decision was theirs while the parent is satisfied that all needs are covered. For example, daughters like to choose their clothing at an early age. Boys not as much – mainly because their wardrobes are jean and t-shirt oriented. The three key elements that reduce conflict over getting dressed for daughters are 1) make the choices the night before with the agreement that there are no changes the next morning, and 2) narrow the choices down to two. If you select two outfits, lay them out on the bed, and allow her to choose before bedtime, then there is less to argue about the next morning. Be prepared that she may want to mix and match components of the two outfits and this is perfectly acceptable unless it only opens the door for more arguments. Either way, she gets 10 minutes to decide, the selected outfit hands on the closet door until the next morning, and the decision is done! Oh, wait! I did say three key elements, didn’t I? The third element is that you stand your ground. Two choices, ten minutes, no changes in the morning. I am not saying that you cannot be flexible, mind you. If there is particular outfit that she just must wear the next day and it is not one of your choices, let her wear it – as long as the process still does not go over 10 minutes and is completed the night before.
Structured choices can work on a variety of situations. Most children, at some point in their lives, spend some time labeled “picky eater”. When I spoke with our pediatrician about some of my children’s food peculiarities, he informed me that as long as their preferences or refusals did not eliminate anything crucial from their diet, or introduce anything harmful into their diet, I should not make such a big deal out of it. He advised that I continue to introduce a variety of foods to them at meals, even ones they had refused in the past, and eventually they would eat well-rounded meals. As a mother that worries, I do not often find myself willing to just “let it go” so casually. So I developed a few of my own strategies. First, I made one meal for my family. There were no “different” side dishes, veggies or entrees for any particular person. There was one meat, one or two veggies, a carb, and milk. Where is the choice? It’s simple: my daughters had to take one bite of everything. Just one bite. Then, if there was nothing they liked, they could have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now, if all they “liked” was one veggie, they could still have the sandwich as long as they ate all of that veggie first. There was rarely nothing they liked and usually by the time they ate the portions that they did like, they no longer wanted the PB&J. I also learned how to “sneak” veggies into foods that I knew they liked. Grated carrots and chopped spinach often were included in my meatloaf. Carrots, zucchini and squash can be diced and added to spaghetti sauce. Dishes with interesting names – like ‘bubble and squeak’ – are rather appetizing for children. (Mashed potatoes with broccoli, squash, cauliflower, etc. mixed in and topped with tomato sauce and cheese.) They also make for interesting dinner conversation as you try to figure out how the dish got its name. Downright trickery is okay, too. Mashed cauliflower looks almost identical to mashed potatoes and if you add some butter and a sprinkle of cheese, you can convince them that it is.
Structured choices also come with a sense of responsibility and promotes their desire for independence. When selecting clothing for the next day, let them know that they are helping you by being prepared. Having a peanut butter and jelly option at dinner (after they take one bite of everything on their plate) keeps them from eating the “yucky” dinner and from going to bed hungry. (It also gets them to try new foods and deters the fight.) Almost any situation you encountered can be handled with structured choices. Homework, bedtime, television and video games – structured choices can provide a win-win situation for them all. Recently my oldest daughter took the XBox away from her stepson because of bad grades. Once his homework was complete and they went over it together, she gave him choices to fill his time – none involving television or video games. While any of the choices would have been good for him, he made the choice to read! He read a lot longer that evening than if she had told him to read when he whined that he didn’t have anything to do. When it is their choice, the task is much more positively productive.
Take a few minutes to analyze the things that you and your child struggle over the most, decide if/how you can compromise, and see if you can’t come up with a system of structured choices that will satisfy you both. You will be amazed at the peace you can bring to your household!