Q: My eight-year-old has been saying lately, "I can do whatever I want" and "I am in charge of me." He will say these things when I ask him to do random things, like sitting safely in the car, picking up toys, going to bed. I know he is in charge of himself, and I want him to be autonomous. Sometimes, I just get firm and cut him off because I don't feel like having a long-winded conversation about this with him. How do I encourage him so this doesn't turn into a battle?
A: All children who are developing to their fullest potential come to an age when they want to create a space for themselves, a voice and a sense of independence within their families.
This expression of independence is healthy and needed in order for a child to begin to grow into a young adult. As parents, we feel challenged, provoked and annoyed by our children's assertions, and this is also normal and good.
Wait, what? Yes, feeling challenged is good. When we have some parental discomfort, it can mean change is afoot.
And when our children say, "I am in charge of myself," we parents are forced to ask ourselves some worthwhile questions:
1) Why is this child pushing back? And why now?
2) Has my child matured and I have not grown with him?
3) Is my child ready for more responsibility? More choice?
4) Am I bossing my child around? Am I using kindness in my requests?
5) Am I waffling when he pushes back? Do I always acquiesce to his demands? Does my child feel like the boss of our house?
Creating a balance of choice and boundaries, of room to grow and rules to be followed, is the work of every parent. It is not easy, and you will have missteps and failures along the way. That's good, because these failures are our teachers.
Among these failures, there are some simple ideas to help you gain a new parenting perspective.
If a child says, "I am in charge of myself," that is an indicator that the parent or caregiver is bossing, demanding and commanding too often. When someone barks orders or demands that something be done "right away," well, I know that makes me feel like saying, "NO!"
Humans do not like to be bossed around, especially eight-year-old humans.
Does this mean that I am saying that you can't expect your children to do what you ask them to do? Of course you can, but let's find the middle way.
For instance: sitting safely in the car. This is not optional, right? You will pull over, wait and do what is necessary until the child is seated safely.
Putting toys away? Well, this could get a different approach. Is there really a pressing need for those toys to be put away, right now? Probably not. A choice is a lovely option here: "Hey buddy, your Legos are all over the living room floor. You can pick them up in 15 minutes or an hour: Which do you choose?"
Another way to smooth over some potential struggles is to call a family meeting. I am a huge fan of the family meeting, and learned about it in detail from the good folks at PEP (the Parent Encouragement Program, look 'em up).
The family meeting is pretty simple: You call everyone together and say something like, "Hey, I am noticing that all of our shoes are in front of the front door every night. It is getting dangerous and a little messy. What are the solutions for this?" And then you turn it over to the children. What are their ideas? Be open to their creativity; let the ideas get a little outside the box. Let the children find a solution that, while perhaps not perfect (or, ahem, how you would do it), allows them to have some ownership. Like almost all humans, children feel invested in solutions when they have a voice in creating them.
This does not mean you should let your son go on for hours about how he is not going to pick up his toys. No. I'm suggesting the middle way.
When we dismiss someone out of hand, we know that this is rude, whether it is a friend, a co-worker or a child. So find another way to respond to your son's rants.
The old saying, "If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all," is a beautiful and simple way to not enter into the struggle.
Let's face it: If your son does not want to pick up his toys, there is little you can say or do to make him want to do it.
Sure, you could give him money or lollipops (short-lived rewards that breed skewed expectations in kids and resentments in parents), or you could throw his toys away while he watches (effective punishment, as well as mean-spirited, and will build problems the likes of which you cannot imagine).
Instead, ask yourself this: How can I create the conditions in which my son wants to clean when I ask him?
Aim for what is normal developmentally.
My children are not always "whistling while they work." They don't thank me for the jobs, nor do they seek me out for assignments. I am not looking for perfection; I am looking for help and a clutter-free (okay, less-cluttered) home. If there are grumbles along the way, that's normal. I can handle that, and so can every parent.
So, yes, show me a child who is asserting, "I am the boss of myself," and I will show you a child who is developing in a healthy way.
And it is okay to step back and stop the requests for a while. Just work on the relationship, have some fun, smile and enjoy each other's company.
When the time feels right, your son will begin to help. Humans help others when they feel valued, appreciated and seen.