Research shows the most effective predictor of whether our children comply is if our child feels valued, understood and in alignment with the person in charge. Children do well when adults convey a sincere belief in the child’s potential to do the right thing. Children who are compliant by nature tend to garner belief and praise by adults, since adults come to expect that they will make good decisions. Children prosper in the belief that they are capable. The opposite can be true of children who do not automatically comply. Fear enters the equation... our own fear that our child is not making good decisions, our own fear that our child is steering off track, our own fear that he/she is not succeeding as expected. We intervene in an authoritative manner that suggests we don’t really believe that our child is capable of making the right choice if left to his/her own devices, therefore it is our job to “right the ship” and set clear expectations with minimal tolerance for off-track behavior. Once we enter the dynamic of setting all the expectations, some children simply give up or shut down, relationships become strained, and self-esteem diminishes.
The danger in this situation is that shame can seep in - for both kids and parents. If our child is told often, for example, that he is “disorganized” or “impulsive” or “overly emotional,” adult strategies for creating lists or thinking proactively or bravely when confronting a difficult scenario are not well received. The requests by parents may be heard by our kids as a put-down or a belief that “you don’t matter unless you do as I say” rather than an opportunity for partnership and belief that our kids will, in the end, behave or respond appropriately.
A helpful approach may be to view “noncompliance” as an opportunity to figure out, “Why not?” and “How can I help you?” and “What will it take for a favorable response?” Ross Greene, Psychologist and originator of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach -- now called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions - reminds us that kids will do well if they can, not if they want to. If we believe that message in our hearts, we welcome the imperative to partner rather than impose our expectations - so that our re-directions are delivered in a way that our children can gracefully receive.
The most significant predictor of emotional health for children - and therefore the most important goal that we must set for ourselves as parents - is the message that our children are worthy of love and belonging, at all times and in all places. More than compliance, if children value themselves from the inside, they tend to be more accepting of our encouragement and redirection. Relationships first. We are an end-product society. We spend a lot of time focused on grades, goals scored, ribbons awarded, trophies earned, batting averages calculated, etc. The downside of an end-result culture is that our children are at-risk for believing that they are only as worthy as their report card grade or soccer team performance suggests. When they do well, they are praised. When they make a mistake, they feel ashamed. As responsible parents, we must be aware of the culture we are in and the pressure it puts on our children (and ourselves) to perform well, no excuses - and to minimize the processing of not making the mark or figuring out what is going on from the inside. Our children desperately need us to enter their worlds to process how it feels to lose a game or miss out on a goal - without judgment, critique or blame. These spaces between parents and children must be kept sacred, respectful, and safe. These types of conversations must happen.
Thus, it is easy for our interactions with our kids to seem dominated by outcome measures... (Did you do your homework? Did you do your chores? Did you practice your piano? Did you pack your bags? Did you clean your room?) More important - and ironically more predictive of these things being done - is our ability to impart our genuine belief that our children will do what is right, they will make good decisions, they will initiate independently...as long as we BELIEVE that they will, and we impart a message of “You can do this, I’m here to support you, You are worthy and capable in your own right, and It’s okay to make mistakes because they help you learn and grow.” By releasing ourselves from the pressure of entering the “end game” rapport with our kids, we build trust with our children and gain a place with them “in the game.” When we emphasize such qualities as persistence, hard work, bravery, and relationships, we remove pressure on our kids to feel they must be perfect, and we help them foster a strong partnership with us and a strong work ethic that they will need as they grow. We must guard against stressing them out by prodding them to do or act or be something that they feel we don’t believe they can do. When our interactions are framed by themes such as...“I can’t wait to join you on your path” and “We will have fun together,” we set the tone for allowing our children to be themselves, to accept themselves, and to take risks in the world without dashing their true spirits. In the end, it is their self-compassion, their work ethic, and their strong values that will save them despite a prevailing culture of end product expectations. As parents, we must deliver this simple yet powerful message: “You are always and unconditionally worthy of love and belonging.” This message becomes our gift, freeing and empowering our children to be fully accountable to their actions and decisions.