Monday, October 19, 2009

When your 8-year-old is going on 15 !!

It is always ironic to me, how my own experience raising my child always prepares me for my sessions with the parents I coach. Many of these parents have come to me lately for help when they are engaged in power struggles with their children. It has been a topic that has brought many a frustrated parent to question his or her own parenting skills. I had being able to recognize immediately when their children were asserting their own power and attempting to define the boundaries between them and their parents. This time it was my turn to experience that struggle for myself.

A few days ago, my 8-year-old daughter got in the car with me after a day at school. On the way home we talked about what she planned to do with the rest of the afternoon. I was quick to remind her that she was expected to do her homework and chores before she went out to play with our next-door neighbor. I found myself at a loss for words as I heard my daughter say, in no uncertain terms:” I am not doing chores and you can’t make me. “

In the interest of honesty and transparency here, I have to tell you that hearing my own daughter utter those words felt like a personal and professional failure on my part. One of the things that has made my work as a parent coach a powerful experience, has been my ability to relate to the struggles of parents just like me, trying to make the best of every situation while raising, healthy, well adjusted children. I was looking at my daughter through the rear-view mirror while fantasizing: Do I join her in the “hunt” for power or do I wait until we get home and ground her for life?

Fortunately for both of us, patience and calm prevailed that day. I forced myself to take a deep breath. As calmly as I could, I let her know that indeed she was correct: I couldn’t make her do anything. I shared with her that once she became her own person, with her own opinions and her own likes and dislikes, I hadn’t been able to make her do anything: I couldn’t make her eat, I couldn’t make her go to sleep, I couldn’t even make her stop talking without using some sort of illegal restraint! She looked back at me with a sense of triumph and repeated: “That’s right mommy, you can’t make me do anything”.

I could see she was waiting for me to make the next move. I have never been very good at playing poker but this was one of those times when I needed to keep a straight face and not let her see my “hand”. I needed to keep it together and call her “bluff”. I said: “honey, the wonderful thing about being responsible and making our own decisions is that we also get to experience the consequences of our choices. So, since I can’t make you do anything, my job is to guide you to make the best choices, but the choices are still yours to make.

I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head. We discussed her options and their consequences. Her response was immediate and I heard the “you can’t do that. That’s not fair. No, I will not do my chores OR my homework and you can’t’ make me.” I took another deep breath wondering if my approach was all but a failed attempt to remain calm when what I really wanted to do was scream and tell her how she was going to do whatever I darn well told her to do! Anyone else ever been there?

The ride home was silent and thankfully, short. We went in the house and I continued with my routine without saying another word to her. She sat on the couch, cross-legged and defiant. I told her I was going to give her 5 minutes to decide what she wanted to do. When the time was up, she got off the couch and acting as if nothing had happened asked:” How about I do my chores but put on the TV while I do it so I won’t be so bored?” I agreed quickly and she was surprised. I could tell she felt proud of her “negotiating” skills.

I could feel my face starting to cool off and my blood pressure returning to normal. The bottom line was clear: I had given her the choice to do the right thing but also had given some room for her to feel like she had some power and some true choice-making leverage. As tempting as it was in the moment, I realized that mirroring her unwanted behavior instead of modeling a healthier way to behave was setting up a long road of power struggles. We are not even in the teen years yet!!

One thing I know for sure: When it comes to preparing me to work with the parents I support, nothing prepares me better than the everyday challenges of raising a strong-willed 8 year old!


  1. My mother always gives us her 'hidden' smiles whenever she sees my brother struggle with his kids. She calls it divine retribution! Luckily for him she’s a loving mom and an even more loving grandmom, so is quick to advise him. Her strategy is normally to point out the consequences of such erratic behavior and paint graphically of what may happen if everyone took to doing what they wanted without any responsibilities. This has a dual effect – it reinforces the importance of team work and makes the kids appreciate what you do for them. Also we have devised a technique to let the kids have a bit of ‘power’. We have a ‘Captain of the Day’ on the last 3 days of the week; each child gets to be the captain who allots chores and the fix the routine for the day. This way, each kid is aware that if they give the other too much work, then they would have to pay dearly on the following days! ‘Mutinies’ are settled with parental guidance.

    But I like how you negotiated with your daughter. Your handling of the situation was remarkable. I would have probably blown the fuse at the second disagreement. I like how you got your way, making her feel happy about it and gave her the actual power as well! It’s a win-win situation for all!

  2. Thanks for your kind words Shalvika... we don't always know how we'll handle the fire until we are in it, don't you think?
    I love the visual you shared: "Mutinies" are settled with parental guidance! Amen to that!
    Thanks for your sharing!

  3. I am also managing an eight-year-old who vascillates between sounding two and sounding 22. It is comfroting to read of your struggles and the way in which you handled them. I will try to do this next time we have one of these moments.

  4. I totally hear you... I think your description is closer to reality: sounding two and sounding 22!!!
    It's tough and the best tool I have so far is staying calm..not an easy task when they truly are determined to "engage" you in the argument..!
    Thank you for your comments!!
    Keep shinning your parenting light!!