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Happily Obedient: An Oxymoron?

Parents want their children to be happy. Parents want their children to be well-behaved and obedient. The hard thing is that, for many parents, it feels as though when you try to get your children to behave well, you end up in conflict, and neither you nor your kids are happy. When you try to make them happy by giving them--even anticipating-- what they want, it doesn't seem to make any difference--they still demand and disobey, never seeming to recognize how nice and accommodating you're being.

It's important for parents to recognize this, because it reveals a fundamental truth about human beings--giving in to instant gratification doesn't lead to happiness. In fact, it becomes a kind of bondage; it's what addicts suffer from, the insistence that their desires be met immediately with no regard for anything but the appetite driving the addiction.

Children come with wants and needs they can only communicate through loud demands. When they're infants these needs are very basic, and we do a terrific job of satisfying them; as they grow, their wants far exceed their needs, and they continue to rely on getting our attention through those loud demands. If we don't teach them to say "no" to these demands, they become slaves of their appetites, and we become slaves to keeping them quiet by giving in to their demands.

Read that again: If you don't teach your children to say "no" to what they want, they will become slaves to their impulses, and you will become a slave as well, to your child's demands. In psychological jargon, you become your child's enabler and the two of you function as codependents.

Are you in this situation? Does it feel wrong or harsh to require obedience? Are you worried that you'll sound mean or angry? You need not be harsh, mean, or angry at all. In fact, it's important to your relationship with your child that you NOT be any of those things.

"Children are happiest when their parents clearly state their expectations and give them the freedom to test the boundaries, without the parents becoming exasperated; but when they test, the parents must be ready with a firm and clear response."

But it's just as important that you NOT nag, cajole, offer trade-offs, threaten, or even explain; children aren't grown-ups, and they don't understand adult reasoning, so trying to get them to understand your explanations or agree with your reasons is a waste of your breath and emotional effort.

The best thing is to be as direct as possible: get eye contact with your child, then very simply, clearly, and calmly state what you want your child to do--and say it only once: "Put your pj's on." Then turn and leave the room. After a reasonable period of time, go and check to see that he has done it. If he has, acknowledge the fact, and tell him you're pleased: "I see you've put on your pj's--good job!" Read the bedtime story and say good night.

If he hasn't, first just stand there without saying anything; wait for him to look at you or ask what you're doing. When he does, tell him you're waiting for him to do what you told him to do, but don't say anything else--just stand there; give him a chance to decide to obey. If he doesn't make a move to put the pj's on within five minutes or so, go ahead and start putting them on for him, then tuck him in, no story. When he asks why, say "I'm afraid there is no story when you doesn't do as you're told. I love you! Sleep tight!" Just say it in a very matter-of-fact way, like saying the light doesn't come on if you don't flip the switch--but let the goodnight kiss be genuine!

Your child needs to know that you mean what you say, and that he misses out when he chooses to ignore or disobey you; he also needs to know that his disobedience, and the resulting loss of privilege, don't change your love and affection for him.

A "happily obedient" child is not an oxymoron. He's not a freak, a robot, or a victim of abuse. Children are happiest when their parents clearly state their expectations and give them the freedom to test the boundaries, without the parents becoming exasperated; but when they test, the parents must be ready with a firm and clear response--a privilege withheld or a penalty imposed.

Beginning with something as routine as putting on pj's is a simple way to begin teaching a child the importance of doing what Mom and Dad say. It's also a great way for you as parents to get used to being consistent in remembering to follow through!

Use similar day-to-day opportunities to require obedience (brushing teeth, coming to the dinner table, taking plates to the sink after meals, etc.) and impose simple consequences in a very matter-of-fact way; give the instruction once only, wait for obedience or testing, and very calmly impose a simple penalty as needed. Do this multiple times every day, consistently.

Later, when the stakes are higher--say, you're in a time crunch and you need quick obedience--your child will already know that you mean what you say. You will be used to giving your instructions once, waiting, then responding appropriately.

Parents are less exasperated when they stop nagging and begging their children to obey; the parent who understands that resistance is normal and to be expected, and who doesn't let this resistance cow him into fearfully trying to gain his child's approval, is a parent who can confidently lead his children to a well-adjusted adulthood.

If you need help becoming this kind of parent, contact me to set up a coaching session, or a parenting class for you and some friends!

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