"I Pick My Battles"


How many times have you heard a parent or teacher of young children say that? I believe it may be their second-most repeated phrase, right after, "I'm so tired."

Here's what picking battles looks like sometimes. This is Grace, eating lunch with socks on her hands. I pounced on this photo after her mom posted it on Facebook, and use it here with permission. (Disclaimer: Both Grace and her mom are members of my extended family.) 

Pretty sweet and funny, right? No real hassle for the parent results from saying "yes" to this kind of toddlery experimentation outside adult norms. We just wait until she loses interest in the socks, and then throw them in the laundry with a little stain remover on them. No biggie, right?

Yet, this is exactly the kind of battle in which I've seen SO many adults engage! Not only engage, but go all the way to the mat over their "No!"

Why? Toddlers do a lot of goofy stuff...and they're not going to do it forever. They'll grow out of their insistence on putting underwear on the head, socks on the hands, toys down the toilet. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a 14-year-old do that kind of stuff? Please believe me when I tell you that the change has almost nothing to do with being "taught" not to!

"It's your job to step out of the power struggle. Don't expect your child to be the adult first," says Bonnie Harris, of Connective Parenting. Across the lifespan of a child, this is nowhere more true than in the first seven years. I hope your goal, like mine, is to completely avoid power struggles, if possible. For me, that is the primary motivation to "pick my battles."

However, most adults don't actually choose their battles with children, at all. They fall into them after tripping on the baggage they're still hauling around from their first seven years! Sometimes, they simply repeat battles their parents had with them, without being sure why.

Harris' advice is for those times, I think. Once we realize we've unwittingly and unnecessarily fallen into the battle arena, we adults really must be the first ones to step out of it. 

But wouldn't you like to be able to, truly, consciously pick the battles most important to you? Wouldn't you prefer not to fall into them after your buttons get pushed by a sweet little child like Grace? 

If you're finding yourself in too many senseless battles with young children, here are some tips for moving in the direction of more choice, toward more consciously "picking" the worthy battles:

  1. First, of course, I must tell you to take advantage of the developmental do-overs I offer in my workshops and writing. Unpack your own early childhood baggage (we all have some).
  2. Plan ahead. With your parenting or teaching partner(s), select and periodically update your list of the few things that you agree are non-negotiable (e.g., no physical harm to others, or to belongings; sit at the table to eat). Upgrade your list as your child's development allows. 
  3. Be very clear, yourselves, and with the child, about why a behavior is forbidden or required. "Because I said so," is not enough. If that's the best you've got, then I suggest that you haven't chosen your battle wisely.
  4. Face the fact that young children may simply not be developmentally ready to either inhibit behavior that annoys, or consistently produce behavior that pleases. They really cannot NOT run in the house, abruptly squeal at head-splitting volume when something excites them, or remember to say "please" and "thank you." At least, not for a few years. Yes, keep helping them learn these forms of self-control, certainly. Just don't battle over it too early.

That's it. Just four little tips...with very big impacts. Please, let me know if they help!

Just remember what Bonnie Harris said...it's your job to be the adult. If you need help with some do-overs on your own early childhood to make sure you are more capable in that role, I can help with that!

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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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