The Two Magic Questions

Two Questions That Will Help You Find Respectful Solutions to the Challenges You Face With Your Children.

How many times have you been faced with your child’s difficult behavior and thought, “I just don’t understand why we keep having a problem with this?”  As parents we are faced with challenges every day.  Some challenges are easy to understand and we know just how to handle them, others are baffling, and we spend hours trying to understand what is going on.  Whenever I find myself in that confused and almost desperate spot I ask two questions and I almost always find the answer I’m looking for.

First Question:  Is what I’m asking of my child developmentally appropriate for them?  For example, If I am  asking my two year-old to sit at the dinner table quietly for an hour with the family and discuss the days events, he is going to resist.  There will be screaming and tears and many other unpleasant displays that make for a less than peaceful dinner.  While having the entire family sit and share their day with one another is something I really would like, it is simply not something my two year-old is developmentally capable of.  

I stress the child’s developmental readiness and not their age, because none of us develop according to some all-encompassing chart that dictates all our mental, physical, social and emotional growth.   One two year-old might be very verbal while another might not say much at all, yet both are developing at exactly the right rate for them.  So it is imperative that you observe and know your own child’s development in any specific area so you can set your expectations.  

Problems sometimes arise when we think our child is developmentally ready and they are, in fact, not.  The great thing is they will tell us -- we just have to recognize their signs.  Instead of seeing my child’s throwing of  her strawberries as a direct assault on my tablecloth, I might stop and ask is she ready to have a plate full of food set in front of her, or does she needs me to offer her one bite at a time.  

Another trap that it is easy to fall into is letting society tell us what our kids should be ready for at any given age.  For instance, just about everywhere you go you hear people telling very young children to “share.”  One toddler has a toy and another toddler wants it, and then in comes some adult like the dues ex machina in an ancient Greek tragedy and demands that the first child share.  If you in fact mean sharing as in:  recognizing someone else’s wants and empathizing with that person then deciding on your own that you want to ease their distress by giving them part or all of what you have, well that is something that most toddlers just can’t do.  They tell us that every time they scream when we take their ball away and give it to some other kid who also wants it.  If we accept that our toddler is just not developmentally ready for this level of empathy we can see the toddler toy struggle in a whole different light.

Second Question: Have I been clear and consistent with my limits? What do I expect of the child in this situation and what will be my compassionate, respectful, but yet firm response when my child tests the limits?  Once we answer that question we must calmly and confidently have that response every time.  
One place we get into trouble is not having a clear expectation for our child in a particular situation.  Do I expect him to stay in his bed for rest time or just in his room?  Does the door need to be shut or can it be open?  When we don’t know, they don’t know.  What do all children do when a limit is uncertain?  They test.  

Another problem we have is balancing the compassion and respect with being firm and clear, particularly when our children are expressing big feelings about the situation.  Yes we must recognize their feelings.  Let them know you really hear what they are telling you, but that does not mean that the boundaries have budged at all.  

The final element to the second question is probably the hardest.  Consistency.  Children test limits like waves test a levy -- relentlessly, everyday, every hour, sometimes every minute.  They are looking to see if this is a real serious boundary like, don’t play in the street or if it has some wiggle room like, no running in the house.  The reason this is so hard is because it requires us to get up and do the same thing over and over ad nauseam.   When I was a kid and I mom said “I told you kids a thousand times...”  I thought she was exaggerating.  But she probably did tell us a thousand times.  We get frustrated and tired of setting the same limit -- why aren’t they getting it?  They are getting it.  They just want to see how strong it is.  

Lastly I want to point out that sometimes both things are happening at the same time.  Let’s look at a familiar example.  I check on my four year old and find that the floor of his room is covered in toys -- dinosaurs, cars, legos, little plastic animals, everywhere.  So I ask him to clean up the room, and I am met with an explosion of crying and screaming that he can’t clean all this up.  If I ask myself question #1 I realize that perhaps my little guy is not capable of cleaning up a mess that big all by himself.  But when I ask myself questions #2 I also realize that I should have set some clear limits about how much stuff he could get out.  While I enjoy seeing the T-rex drive the monster truck through Lego land, unless I am willing to clean up giant messes like this every couple of hours ( and I am not) I had better come up with some limits we both can live with and then stick to them.  

So next time you are at your wits end and you don’t know what to do try these two questions.  Often you’ll find they will help.