Divert a 6-year-old's arguing with activities that you both enjoy

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

Question: I have a 6-year-old boy who won't take no for an answer when he wants something, and continues arguing with whatever reason we give. I like to try to explain why we are doing what we are doing, why he can't do something or why he needs to, but whatever reason I give, he comes up with an argument.

It gets really old, and eventually I end up saying, "Because I said so." But I don't like that answer. Do you have any good ways to stop the continual argument?

Answer: First, many parents reading this column will understand this frustration, so know you are not alone. I always want to begin by acknowledging that I don't know much about your family, and I do not know how long these behaviours have been occurring, so I am going to give my general thoughts about this challenge.

When I hear that a child is pushing and arguing with a parent's "no," my first question is: What is your child getting out of this back and forth? Every behaviour serves a purpose. It is a useful exercise to sit back and say, "How does arguing serve my son?" The answer isn't "He likes to be annoying."

If you don't readily come up with answers, let me give you some ideas:

1. You have not caught up with his development and you may be treating him like a baby.

With preschool children, there are many boundaries and many "no's" we need to deliver. It is difficult to explain the rationale of all these rules because very young children are mostly emotional creatures. They are not interested in our perspective or thought-out rules; they just want what they want.

This doesn't mean we don't bother to give our reasons for a rule; it's just that we can't expect that it will always go well. But as children get closer to 7 years old, you will find that they want to know why these rules exist, and will push against them with more sophisticated arguments. This is often a sign that you may be saying no too much. Your child may be ready for more freedom of activity, choice and consideration. But this doesn't mean you let all the rules go; it means you begin to zoom out and look at your decisions.

Is there room to say yes? Is there room for options, choices and other ideas that you haven't considered? As humans develop, they want to own more of their choices, and they will fight for this ownership. Your son may be no different.

2. Another reason your son may be debating with you is that this is how he connects with you.

Because connection and belonging are fundamental human needs (and even more so in children), a child can easily become accustomed to arguing as a form of connection. It sounds odd, but when there is strong eye contact and a raised voice, this feels normal. Even good! Even though you are annoyed, all of your attention is focused on him, and that is powerful stuff for a 6-year-old.

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3. Another reason he may constantly argue with you is that he senses that you are a tiny bit weak.

I am not suggesting that your son wakes up with the conscious plan to push you around; that's not developmentally normal for his age. But I am suggesting that parents are meant to be in charge and confident.

When parents show chronic weakness (i.e. feel the need to explain every decision, from the mundane to the important), the child begins to feel insecure. This insecurity says, "If Mum isn't in charge, then I will be." Again, this isn't conscious for a child; it is the result of a natural human dynamic. In the absence of leadership, someone will take over, and it isn't usually the person with the maturity and experience.

So, what should you do? Well, it depends on the problem. If you are overparenting and bossing your child around too much, take a look at where you can make more room for choices and enthusiastic yeses. In fact, I would recommend creating scenarios during which to say yes more. Six-year-olds are remarkably useful, smart and love real work.

If you feel that your son is mostly connecting with you through arguing, make a list of positive, fun ways you can connect with him. Anything will work: sports, card games, roughhousing, reading together, watching a movie, going on a hike, you name it. The point is that you laugh, be silly, smile and enjoy your son. Will this stop the arguing? No, but my hope is that it will lessen it.

If you feel like you are waffling, weak or trying to convince your son that you have the right to say no, then I have some tough advice for you: Stop explaining yourself over and over. Offer one reason and then stop. You are not obligated to keep offering reasons; they will never satisfy your son anyway.

He will continue pushing, and your job is to hold the boundary with compassionate silence. His frustration will grow. He will push, maybe literally, and eventually, he will throw a fit and then give up.

You will be tempted to punish and give consequences, but just let his frustration ride itself out. If you continue to kindly and strongly hold your boundary, his brain will adapt and stop pushing. And there is nothing wrong with saying "because I said so." Sometimes, it is the truest thing we can say as a parent, and all the reasons we give are just a coverup for our fear of holding a boundary.

Try to figure out why you are struggling with your son before you chart a course of action. The more you understand why your child is pushing, the more effective your strategies to stop it will be.

And by the way, don't look for a total elimination of pushback. We want to raise strong humans with minds of their own, not robots. Good luck.

Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

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