From the moment they won’t arrive on their due dates and follow the “birth plan,” through those toddler tantrums, willful tween arguments, and on to teenage drama, our children are going to fight to get their way. And we are going to fight back. After all, we don’t want to raise them to be spoiled, irresponsible, or unsafe, right? Still, experts tell us that with some of these battles, it’s OK to “lose” to our kids. (And really, we’ll all be winning.)
“If you constantly feel like you are fighting with your child first you should adjust your own mindset: Conceding is not losing,” Kimberly Delude, a speach pathologist and author of the book Freddie and Friends: Bugging Out, a Story About Learning to Keep Small Problems Small, tells SheKnows. “Healthy debate is an important skill for any child to learn. It teaches kids to communicate their wants and needs through a healthy medium instead of through tantrums. … It also gives kids a sense of power and boosts confidence but in a controlled manner. So much of their lives feels out of their control; allowing them to be able to make safe decisions over smaller issues will build their self-confidence and they will feel more valued.”
Wow, just reading those words lifts a weight off our shoulders. It would even probably be easier to let kids have their way all the time. But that’s not exactly wise either, obviously.
“Parents should remember that it is not about exerting control over your children but helping them grow and learn,” says Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck, a child and adolescent psychologist and director of the George Mason University Center for Psychological Services. “Children need rules, boundaries, and appropriate consequences. Allowing children to make choices is critical to healthy development, and parents can help by providing options.”
So which fights do we absolutely have to win and which can we lose? We wish we could give you a definitive list. Instead a handful of experts gave us these guidelines might make things go more smoothly and let you rest easy that you’re not inviting anarchy into your home.
Little picky eaters & finicky dressers
“If your child doesn’t like certain foods, or thinks they don’t like a certain food, arguing over it is going to make them dig in their heels,” Delude says. “Instead, keep presenting new foods to them, even just have them on the table, and offer them alternative choices. This gives them control but still has the outcome you want of eating healthy. Another example is clothing. Many children have a clothing sensitivity. As long as they aren’t dressing inappropriately (i.e., it’s winter and they are wearing flip-flops) then it’s OK to let them win this argument even if they are wearing the same shirt for the third day straight. It doesn’t hurt anyone even if it feels wrong.”
“Many families eat dinner together, but usually breakfast and lunch aren’t as structured,” she says. “Allow your child to choose what he would like to eat for breakfast and lunch, offering two or three nutritious options.”
With clothing, too, she suggested giving them some choices with parameters.
“Allow your child to have a voice throughout this process, from the clothes purchased to her daily outfits,” she says. “If your child loves wearing dresses and you’re getting ready for a chilly playdate at the park, allow your child to wear a dress but one that can get dirty and pair it with leggings or pants underneath.”
Let them choose when, but not whether
“I strongly encourage giving young children ‘forced choices,'” Mehlenbeck tells us. “This means that you really are picking two to three options that are acceptable to you, but the child gets to make the final decision. Adding in a positive motivation can strongly reinforce the behavior you would like. For example, a young child who is learning to put their toys away can be encouraged to pick which toy to put away first (forced choice) and then get five minutes of extra time to do an activity they enjoy when all the toys are put away (positive reinforcement). Thus, a child learns to clean up their toys in a positive way with some autonomy.”
That positively enforced autonomy is something they can build on later in life, too.
“You are not just avoiding the negative outcomes; you are teaching your child to value his voice and his individuality,” Licate explains. “As your child experiences the positive effects of decision-making, she will develop confidence in herself and trust her voice. This creates better self-esteem and sets the stage for learning important self-advocacy skills.”
Letting them be themselves — not us
“It’s always helpful to remember that our kids aren’t an extension of us,” Ryan Haddon, a life coach, meditation teacher, and relationship expert, says. “That can give us more emotional leeway in those standoff moments when our kids choose to express themselves differently than how we would. … As a parent, we can recognize that desire to keep up appearances and over-correct from our own childhood, or that urgency to want our children to be polite and conform to social mores. Staying conscious around why that feels imperative to us, noticing our inflexibility around insignificant issues and power dynamics around needing to be right, helps us evolve alongside our children. They are entrusted to us and they also help mirror the parts of us in shadow.”
Let them experience consequences, good and bad
“As they get older, allow them to make more of their own decisions when it is safe,” says Jennifer Law, an elementary school counselor and author of Pause Power and Practicing Patience: How to Wait Patiently When Your Body Doesn’t Want to. “This includes allowing them to make poor decisions as long as it is safe. This may mean your child ends up with a haircut you don’t care for, or that he or she takes showers later in the day than you would like. This also means your children are learning about how their decisions can impact their life. This way children can learn about cause and effect. They can discover their own preferences. Some might match yours, and some won’t. And that is OK. It’s what you wanted — for them to grow and stand up for themselves and to be able to make choices independently.”
When the fights do more harm than good
No matter what you and your child are arguing about, you do not want to do lasting damage to them just because of how you’re arguing. In heated fights, often no one listens and no one wins.
“If you are in the middle of a power struggle, step back,” Mehlenbeck advises parents. “Take a time out for both of you. It is not the time to talk about things. Take a breath and encourage your child to as well — blowing bubbles is a great way to calm someone’s breathing and de-escalate a situation! — and then restart. Focus on what you want your child to do, and see if you can find some way for them to have a choice. ‘Do you want to put on your shoes or coat first?’ You offer a choice, but continue moving toward getting out the door!”
Delude also offers some warning signs that a parent has exerted too much control over their child: If they argue over every little thing, or stop obeying altogether, for example.
“They’ve learned that they aren’t being listened to so why bother,” she says. “A final bad sign is a child who just accepts what is told to them. You also want to build a child who knows when to question things.”
But don’t compromise on safety
“Issues of safety are paramount … This can take a lot of forms, including internet safety,” Mehlenbeck says. ” Fighting with a teen about their social media use is difficult, but due to safety issues, parents want to be aware of how their teens are using social media. Proactively talk about what the rules are and what the consequences are if they are broken. Take the fight out of it by being proactive. … I also encourage families to monitor social media and cell phone use for children and even teens to some extent. There are wonderful apps for this now, and this can help with conversations. This is not a ‘trust’ issue; this is a safety issue.”
Kids, especially teens, may also not agree with rules you’ve set to stay safe from COVID-19.
“Setting limits on social outings for your kids is very hard, but if getting together with someone outside your bubble puts others at risk, you should stand firm on this rule,” Mehlenbeck adds.
Finally, Law offered this question to determine whether you’re fighting with your kid for the right reason: “Are you there and ready to help, or are you there and ready to enforce something?”
Thinking this way won’t exactly make parenting easier; but it will help make us more effective at it.
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