Children try to train their parents as much as parents try to train their children. Children want their parents to wait on them hand and foot, to buy them whatever they want, to grant them freedom and privilege, and to think everything they do is wonderful.
If you have children, you know this is true. They want a lot from you. And they use whatever tools they can to attain it: throwing a fit, being cute, whining, wearing down resistance with persistence, lying, trying to use your own rules against you, pitting Mom against Dad, pretending to go along with you in order to gain favor, being “good,” trying to make you feel guilty, etc. You’re familiar with the techniques. Every kid invents them anew and uses whichever techniques he can get away with.
I’ve seen parents counter their children’s strategies with “That makes Mommy unhappy,” as if Mom’s happiness is on the child’s top-priority list. I’d hate to break the news to a mom who says this, but her happiness is way down there, below cookies and cotton candy. The motivation a child has to please a parent is weak compared to the motivation to gain resources and privilege.
Therefore, if you have a child, you must arrange it so there is a strong motivation to do what you want — something more powerful than “It makes me happy.” It’s not that your child doesn’t care about you. It’s that the self-discipline it takes to be fair and sacrifice one’s own wishes for the good of someone else and for the long term is learned. It’s not inborn. So while your child does want to please you, he also wants cookies and if he can get them by being nice, he will. If he can get them by screaming, he will.
Now that you’re an adult, you know it’s important to delay gratification. You know vegetables are better for you than cookies. And you have enough appreciation for long-term consequences that you’re willing to sacrifice pleasure in the moment. But your child isn’t. So the two of you are going to conflict.
In any conflict, failure to be aware of the goals of the other person puts you at a disadvantage in gaining your own goals. You want to buy them a book. They want more junk (toys). You want them to eat vegetables and protein. They want cookies and ice cream. You want to teach them manners and morals. They want you to go pester someone else. By and large, they are not the slightest bit interested in what you really want to give them.
Your goals are in conflict. That is the way it is. You cannot make your goals align without compromising your integrity, so you must be the one who sets the standards and you must deal out consequences when the standards are violated. Reasoning won’t work with someone who hasn’t had enough experience to appreciate long-term consequences. So you have to create immediate consequences. And the consequences have to be more of a deterrent than the pleasure your child gets from violating the standard. Knowing you’re disappointed usually won’t do it. “A good talking to” won’t either. You need something sufficiently difficult, inconvenient, or painful to make a child choose wisely: a week without dessert, no TV for three days, extra chores. And it only works when you make sure you follow through and enforce the consequences.
This is an important conflict. The way it turns out makes a difference. It’s your adult standards against your child’s whims. It’s conscience against genetically driven impulse. It’s experience against ignorance. Who will win? For your sake and for your child’s sake, I hope it’s you.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.