Dropping Our End of the Stick

Ever play that tug-of-war game with your dog where you hold one end of a stick and your pet holds the other end in his mouth?  Your dog loves this game and the longer and stronger you hold onto your end, the stronger your dog pulls his end – sometimes even growling as he pulls.

Then, when you let go, he lies down chewing on it, looking up at you, and every so often barking an invitation for you to continue the game. If you don’t grab for your end, he grows tired of the game, leaving the stick in the grass to pursue something else. Do you see where this is going?

Our power-struggles with kids are the same game. Here’s a typical experience in the grocery store:  

Child of about 8 or 9 has been begging mom to buy candy despite the fact that the new family rule is no sugar for the next two weeks (just like the dog bringing the stick and dropping it at your feet, begging to play the game of tug-of-war).

Mom:  No candy. We made a plan to eat healthy foods, and that included not eating sugar at all for 2 weeks (picking up the stick by repeating what the child knows).

Child: You made the plan. I didn’t. Besides, I only want one candy bar (tugging the  other end of the stick).

Mom:  That’s sugar, and the answer is no. (tugging back)

Child:  You never buy me anything I want. Just one candy bar, p l e a s e (holding tightly and pulling).

Mom:  If you say another word about it, there’ll be no tv tonight (tugging even harder by using a warning).

Child:  (yelling) That’s not fair. My favorite movie’s playing tonight.  You can’t take that away from me just because I want a candy bar (really tugging and even growling).

Mom:  It’s not because you want a candy bar.  It’s because you’re being disrespectful (holding on even tighter).

This power-struggle can go on and on forever until one of them lets go of the stick. Mom can use power and really take away the tv show, but this continues the tug-of- war. So what is an alternative?  Let’s examine the following conversation in which Mom doesn’t ever pick up the stick in the first place:

Child of about 8 or 9 is begging mom to buy candy despite the fact that the new family rule is no sugar for the next two weeks (just like the dog bringing the stick and dropping it at your feet, begging to play the game of tug-of-war).

Mom:  What is our new rule about sugar? (The “What Question” keeps responsibility on the child).

Child:  I hate that rule and I don’t want it (just like when the dog looks up begging you to pick up the stick and play the tug-of-war).

Mom:  I understand you don’t like the new rule, and I know you really want some candy, Hon (recognizing the feelings keeps Mom from picking up the stick).

Child:  I hate it and it’s stupid anyway (still begging Mom to pick up the stick).

Mom:  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could eat candy any time we wanted to. I wish we could have some candy (Mom has shared that she too wants the same thing as she keeps on shopping).

Child:  So — You can buy some.

Mom:  I wish I could.  Do you know the reason I can’t? (another form of the original “What Question”).

Child:  You can, I told you (still begging Mom to play tug-of-war)).

Mom:  no response, continues shopping and they check out.

Now, if the child has a temper tantrum – which is clearly possible – that is a different problem and can be addressed when they get home. Remembering that privilege and responsibility are twins, the logical and age-appropriate consequence of a temper tantrum could be that the child loses the privilege of her cell phone until s/he can show responsible behavior when dealing with a major disappointment. At this age, the word no usually is a major disappointment, so the wait won’t be long.

At an appropriate time – a bit later when feelings have calmed down – it’s a good idea to brainstorm together a few responsible ways to deal with a disappointment. Kids get lost in their emotions and need to know and be able to use healthy ways of confronting a disappointment. 

If only I had known how to let go of the stick when my oldest daughter was this age. I was probably the strongest tug-of-war player known. I truly believed the parent was supposed to be able to make her child mind. And if my child didn’t mind me, I punished her – an outcome that just kept the tug-of-war going.  I didn’t know there was a more effective way. (Please see my 2 blogs on the differences between punishment and consequences – August 2018 & September 2018).

The most successful way for parents to avoid this stick game is to use the communication skills included in many of my blogs. In this one, we see Mom using the skill of recognizing her child’s feelings, asking the What Question, joining her child in the fantasy of having some candy,[1]  and using a logical consequence if necessary. In addition, she has avoided all of Gordon’s “Roadblocks to Communication.” [2]

Will this approach make a child do what s/he is supposed to do?  No, not all the time, but s/he will get better with practice. What not picking up the stick does do is model an effective way to talk during a disagreement, and it continues a process that teaches kids HOW to take responsibility for their feelings.

[1] Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (NY: Avon Books, Inc. 1980) p 16-17

[2] Thomas Gordon, Teacher Effectiveness Training (Thomas Gordon, 1974) p 47-49.

Copyright 2020 by Judy Harmon Holmes

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