I have recently started to notice myself using a lot more of a certain strategy in my behavior management to build trust and neutralize disobedience. “Transparency” is the grownup word, but I think of it more like pulling back the curtain, revealing the inner workings of my “person in charge” decision making.
Kids want to understand why the rules are the way they are and why their freedom must be restricted so often. I have found the best way to get them on my side is to explain the grownup experience of rules:
“My number one concern at all times is your safety. Of course I want you to learn and have fun, but those are much harder to do if you get hurt. Grownups are always thinking about risk, trying to imagine all the bad results possible from each available choice so we can avoid them. So even if you are unlikely to get hurt, I still have to insist because I’m not willing to risk it. Sorry sweetie.”
And I repeat that idea in different words at different times and the kid starts to absorb it. Until the day they say, “Why can’t I ______?” And I say, “What do I have to think about before everything else?” And they respond with resignation, “My safety.”
Another response to “Why can’t I?” when safety is not in question, is, “You know I love to say yes to you and let you be free and call the shots whenever I can, but in this situation I can’t.” That, of course, has to be true for this to work.
If they say, “Why won’t you do _______ for me?” I pull back the curtain again: “My goal is to help you build skills to eventually become self sufficient. Therefore, if I do something for you that you can do, I rob you of the chance to practice that skill.”
I want my charges to understand why I’m making the choices I make whenever it is possible. This builds trust that I have their best interest at heart. That trust is needed for situations in which it is not possible for them to fully understand my reasoning before following my directions. For example, if a child is about to walk off the curb into the street, I don’t have time to give reasons. I need the child to just follow my direction immediately. In order for the child to make the decision I want, the child has to trust that you would not restrict them unless you have a good reason.
I refer to trust frequently in the face of disobedience. I say, “Sweetie, I want to be able to trust you. When you ignore me or refuse to follow directions, you betray my trust. If I can’t trust that you will follow my directions and make safe choices, it becomes much harder for us to have fun. If I can’t trust you, I am forced to make decisions restricting you that you will not like. So let’s build trust and we can have maximum fun!”
As usual, referring back to the relationship prevents the conflict from becoming a battle of wills. It points to the common goal we have of maintaining a loving and rewarding relationship. Instead of consequences being imposed by the grownup, consequences follow naturally from the child’s decisions: if they betray my trust, it will naturally follow that I will trust them less, which weakens the relationship. This is not my unkind decision, but an inevitability because of the nature of trust.
So the takeaways are: Be transparent about your experience of being the person in charge and your decision making process. Transparency builds trust. Trust makes long explanations less and less necessary. Disobedience is a betrayal of trust that weakens the grownup-child relationship. Always refer back to the common goal of a healthy relationship to neutralize anger and aggression.