You Can’t Control Your Child, But You Can Decide What You Will Do

Girl reluctantly eating brocoli

You can’t make your kids put their laundry in the hamper, but, as the parenting expert Amy McCready says, you can decide what you will do in response, and you can clearly announce your intentions in advance.1

“I will do any laundry that is in the hamper on Thursday and Sunday mornings,” you can declare. “Any laundry that isn’t in the hamper by then will have to wait until next time.” When they miss the Thursday hamper deadline, and plead for a special load, you kindly and firmly hold the line. “I’m sorry you missed Wednesday’s laundry,” you can say. “I know you’d rather have a clean shirt for soccer.”

You can’t make your child eat, but you can decide when the kitchen closes

You can’t physically force your child to take a bath, but as the parent coach Vicki Hoefle says, you can decide what you will do in response to their accumulating filth. You can say that you really don’t like being near your child when they don’t bathe. “To tell you the truth,” you could say, “you smell a little ripe tonight. I’d be happy to read to you after you take a shower. It shows that you care about all of us and our shared space.”2

You can’t make a child eat their peas, but you can prepare a meal that includes at least one thing they like and announce when the kitchen will close. If they don’t eat what you’re serving, they’ll get hungry. If they experience a little hunger, they’re more likely to eat next time.

Of course, your child’s safety is paramount. You never want to create a consequence that puts your child in danger. But you knew that.

Be willing to trade today for tomorrow

Let’s be honest: For most of us, it’s not safety issues that are likely to derail our plans for creating a consequential environment; it’s our reluctance to see our children suffer, our tendency to cave under pressure because—well—we don’t like to see our children unhappy and we do like to see them be successful.

In many communities in the United States today, it’s a bit counter-cultural to hold firm against the strenuous appeals of our children, and sometimes our spouses. We want to be liked by our children, and we don’t want to be seen as too rigid.

The thing is, though, we need to be willing to trade today for tomorrow. It doesn’t feel great to hold our ground. It’s hard. And yes, our child may get to school late or may be without their lunch or their homework. Our kid may be hungry for a time, or they may have to wear dirty clothes for a day. But none of these things is the end of the world.

Decide what you will do—for your child’s future

On the flip side, it is the beginning of a new and better world for our child when they really start to take responsibility for their actions and when they and we begin to feel the lift in our relationship that comes when we’re no longer yelling or nagging.

As Katherine Reynolds Lewis writes, “What is most important to remember is that it’s okay for your kids to be upset. Sometimes it’s those feelings of unhappiness or discomfort that prompt people to change. Certainly, your kids will develop resilience only by experiencing unpleasantness, not by being shielded from upset by you.”3

Don’t fight back and don’t back down. Walk away from their protests, no matter how obnoxious, and let them stew it out. You are not being mean to them; rather, they are encountering some bumps in the road as they work through how they are going to deal with reality. You’re not in a power struggle with them; they’re in a power struggle with reality. Better now than in 5, 20, or 25 years.

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You Can’t Control Your Child, But You Can Decide What You Will Do
  1. Amy McCready, The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic, p. 163.
  2. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Good News About Bad Behavior, p. 175.
  3. Ibid, p. 168.