American in Spain

Parenting Tip: How to manipulate a three year old

October 24, 2012
Uninterested Nora

Lately I've been reading some books on parenting, and the paradigm that best jives with my morals and ideals originated from a psychologist named Thomas Gordon, who became an expert in relationship conflict resolution, valuing negotiation and collaboration over the use of power. I had not heard of him until recently, but he was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, so he's not a complete kook. It makes sense that losing an argument because the other person played the power card would breed resentment and poison the relationship. I've had some success with talking through conflicts with my child, but sometimes when you're parenting, you don't have thirty minutes to work through the peace process and converge upon a solution of compromise for every item of clothing your kid refuses to put on in the morning before school. I have found a few shortcuts that I'd like to share with you. The past few months we have had many mealtime negotiations that go like this:

Nora: [about halfway through her meal] My belly hurts!

Me: Well then don't eat any more.

Nora: But I want my Actimel, [a drinkable yogurt dessert reward for proper eating]!

Me: If your belly hurts then you shouldn't eat anything else.

Nora: [picking up her fork] I'm going to keep eating.

And the other very similar tactic of trying to take the shortcut to dessert:

Nora: Have I eaten enough?

Me: Are you full?

Nora: Yes.

Me: Then you've eaten enough.

Nora: Okay, what else can I eat now?

The most convincing strategy for me to use when this happens is to suggest, based on how much she's eaten already, a finite number of spoonfuls more to reach the "enough" barrier, e.g. "Okay, four more and then you're done." It even improves her counting skills! Serving size is crucial as well; ideally I've judged how much she needs to eat precisely and "everything on your plate" can be the barrier, but sometimes I get it wrong and I let her negotiate down to a number of bites.

I've also had a few breakthroughs in the general battle of motivating my child to do something that she doesn't particularly want to do at the moment. Let's say, for instance, that I want her to pick up her toys and put them back in the toy chest. When I tell her to pick them up, she will pout and say, "Why?" or "I don't want to." Continuing to tell her over and over again results in the same questions and the same inaction. Telling her why I want her to pick them up also gets nowhere. Getting angry or raising my voice only makes her cry (she's quite sensitive) and doesn't accomplish anything, nor does threatening any other sort of future punishment or loss of privileges, as she's still an extremely present-oriented temporal being. I have, however, found two techniques that work quite well without any animosity.

The first is the clichéd "I'm not going to tell you again!", which I actually mean and don't repeat my request after I've said that. It's not entirely clear to me why this works, as it's not really a threat, but it does end the dialog, and Nora loves dialog. She usually stops whatever she's doing and immediately goes to do whatever I've told her to do.

The second has been absolutely failsafe; it works every single time. It's not so much about a threat of abandonment as it is about playing off her love of doing things together. All I have to say is, "I'm going to go do [something else]. Do you want to come?" She invariably says, "Yes," to which I continue, "Well then you have to do [requested activity] first." The dangling carrot of doing something new together is all it takes. And it's not like it has to be a fun activity I'm proposing, either; it works with "I'm going to the kitchen, do you want to come?" It's amazing!

Surprised Nora

I just thought I'd share these techniques in case another parent found them helpful. Every child is different, and a huge part of parenting is learning your child's motivations and desires and using them to shape her into a responsible future adult.