Every child spends a good part of his or her day trying to figure out two things: how to get parents to agree to something the child wants, and if the answer is no, whether there is a chance to get that no changed to a yes. When a parent rejects a request, the child will continue pursuing the desired conclusion as long as they think they have a shot. If they can keep the parent talking, there’s still a chance they can close the deal. They’re basically little used-car salesmen who happen to live under your roof.
Now, sometimes, the answer is obvious, like when your five-year-old comes home and announces that from now on, she is living with the dog under the deck in the backyard. You know when you refuse her back-to-the-land move she’s already prepared half a dozen reasons why you should say yes, and to her they all make sense.
When the answer is absolute, inform the child, tell her your reasons, and then stop talking about it. Time to move on. But what if you’re just taking the easy way out, and your child knows it?
When I was raising my daughter, I often said no because it was simpler and less time consuming than listening to the details of what she was proposing. A quick no means you don’t have to deal with everything that comes after saying yes or maybe, and I just didn’t want to have those endless closed-loop discussions that are often accompanied by whining, accusations of injustice, and anger. My daughter, however, wasn’t easily fooled and, sometimes sensing that I DID have time for discussion, she’d get in my face about it, which kickstarted my guilt about how often I took the easy way out. I needed a solution that would allow her to feel heard by me.
What I hit upon was the incorporation of debate into our parent-child relationship. I can picture parents reacting to the word “debate,” which carries a slightly negative connotation when associated with the word “child,” but debating has a long history as a civilized and effective way in which to exchange ideas. Debate takes a bit more effort on the parent’s part but is an effective communication tool, diminishing or even eliminating the rancor and seemingly endless back and forth that accompanies a child’s effort to persuade a parent, while also teaching your child verbal and critical thinking skills. And it can pay off in ways you don’t anticipate.
So how do you teach your child to debate you? The process is simple, but both parties need to agree to honesty and adherence to the rules.
When my daughter thought my initial response to a request was ill-considered, she could ask if I was sure the answer was final. I had to think about it and give her an honest response. If the answer remained no, that would be the end of it. No further discussion on the matter. If, however, I acknowledged a hasty decision in the interest of stress reduction for mama, she could request a debate. Because I wanted to encourage and learn from the process, I mostly said yes to her requests.
She had to offer logical reasons for me to reconsider. No crying or pouting to get her way. No recitation of how many of her friends’ parents allow them to do whatever it was she was requesting. I promised to listen without interrupting her, which, when she was small was often difficult. That was pretty much it. I swore to be fair and offer reasons for my decision. She liked the idea of semi-equal status in a discussion.
When the answer remained no, I had to support my decision with equally convincing arguments. And then she had one last chance to rebut my arguments if she could. Still no? Discussion was over, and I would help her deal with her disappointment. But if she “won,” she felt powerful and capable of using respectful words and logic to get what she wanted, a good lesson for children.
For example, if she wanted to go swimming at Jody’s–which meant I had to help her find her bathing suit, do the sunscreen thing, call Jody’s mom to make sure the swim date was cool with her, then walk her to Jody’s house—my daughter might offer, in support of her request, that she had already checked with Jody’s mom, who was agreeable, that the last few times she had gone to play at Jody’s she had come home on time, and that she had already done her chores and homework.
If she couldn’t support her request with compelling arguments, she might not be able to convince me. I can’t tell you how many future arguments debating shortened or eliminated, and it didn’t occur over every negative decision, only the ones that were important to her. Over the years my daughter became much better at preparing for these events, gradually becoming a master of evidence-based persuasion. She was changing from a used-car salesman to a lawyer who knew how to present her case.
The debates continued into her teens, and usually occurred whenever she craved more freedom or there was something she wanted badly. The plus for me was that responsibility for determining the outcome of a request was now shared, and she learned it was in her best interest to engage in behavior that might weigh a future decision in her favor.
She had an appropriate amount of power and control over her life and felt represented in our discussions. The equation was simple: acting responsibly equaled expanded freedom. The number of times she concluded I was the meanest mom in the world dwindled. She understood and accepted that her behavior impacted my decisions.
Another advantage of debating was that we didn’t even have some discussions. When my daughter was seventeen, I found her home on a Friday night. Highly unusual, so I asked where all her friends were. She responded that they were all up at Northern University, partying with college kids for the weekend. I had a hunch that her girlfriends had pulled one over on their parents with the, “I’m staying overnight at her house,” routine, something that didn’t work with me, because I always called parents to thank them for having my daughter overnight. So I had to ask. Why had she not tried to convince me to allow her to go? Looking thoroughly disgusted, she replied, “Well, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t come up with even one good reason I should be allowed to go, so I didn’t even bring it up.” Payoff!