We have reached the toddler defiant stage! That’s right, we are officially toddler parents. We have officially joined the other parents out there who have screaming kids who don’t want to sit in their car seat, high chair, don’t want to get their diapers changed, etc. I know we aren’t alone, I see you out there, trying to figure this parenting stuff out on your own. Trying to get your child to listen and follow directions. Trying to make it through Costco without a meltdown. Trying to get your kid ready for bed without having to repeat yourself a million times. I see you.
I have to admit I am very blessed because I have worked in early childhood education for over 11 years, so I feel that I have a pretty good grip on parenting. I have been to the training, I have managed a room full of 18 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. But even I have to remember what I have learned and my husband, who hasn’t had any early childhood education training or experience has to learn this on the fly or I have to gently offer him suggestions on how to get our son to do what we want him to do. PARENTING IS SO HARD!
Today I want to share with you an answer to the question you’ve been asking… “how do I get my kid to do what I want?” You might think to yourself “I’ve asked him a million times to clean his room, I’ve tried nicely, I’ve tried ultimatums, I’ve tried everything and the room is still messy!” I hear you and I see you! So let me share a little early childhood education training I got when I worked at Head Start.
When I worked at Head Start we had tons of training on Conscious Discipline, which is a classroom Social Emotional Learning (SEL) tool. Dr. Becky Bailey is the founder of Conscious Disciple and a leader in brain-based, trauma-informed, social-emotional learning. The whole idea behind Conscious Disciple is to decrease problem behaviors, power struggles, impulsivity, and aggression, while increasing resilience, self-regulation, emotional health, and overall achievement. Which at the end of the day isn’t that what all parents want for their children and in their homes?
I could spend days and multiple posts talking about all the different components and ways to implement Conscious Discipline into your homes. But today I only want to talk about 1 skill. The skill of assertiveness. Having the skill to communicate assertively allows you to tell your kids (coworkers, partners, etc.) what your limits are while also respecting their needs. But before I jump into how to be more assertive and how to implement an assertive voice in your home I want to share with you the 2 other types of voices you might be using in your home and why they aren’t working. There are 3 voices we use with our children (coworkers, partners, etc.) 1) Passive, 2) Assertive and 3) Aggressive.
I am not going to lie, this is the voice my husband uses the most in our home. I find it so odd because when he is at work he is a force to be reconded with. But when he is home and playing with our son, he communicates very passively. “M can you do this for me?” “Take another bite for daddy, please.” “M, please don’t touch that, please.” Here is the way to know if you’re using a passive voice. When you’re using a passive voice your goal is to please others. Using the passive voice means you are giving all the power to your child as a way to manipulate them to behave.
In general, when you communicate with a passive tone you are not stating your direct desire, instead, you are dropping hints in hopes the action or behavior will happen because the person cares about you, or wants to see you happy. In other words, when passive adults give up their power to a child, they are hoping and wishing for the child to use that power to make the “right” choice or act the “right” way. Then if/when the child doesn’t act the “right” way the parent feels powerless and frustrated. “I’ve asked them a million times to clean up their room.” But really you’ve dropped hints in hopes that the action you want will be taken or the behavior you want to stop will stop, here are some examples, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go on a family hike?” “Don’t you think it’s important for us to spend time together?” “I don’t want to step on your legos.” “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clean playroom?” “Don’t you want to keep your toys nice?” The passive voice can cause feelings of powerlessness and frustration which often turn into aggression. And when the parent switches from passivity to aggression there is usually guilt afterward, then the guilt promotes more passivity. It is a vicious cycle.
Here are some passive characteristics to keep an eye out for:
- Asks the child to accomplish something but isn’t specific. “Try to be nice.” “Try your best to clean up.” “Try to follow directions better.”
- Questions the child about their behavior but the questions do not give useful information. “Where should you be?” “Why are you doing that?”
- No follow through on consequences. “Do that one more time and we will stop. I’m warning you, one more time.”
- Gives the power to the child, putting them in charge. “When you are ready, I’ll start.”
- Holds the child responsible for their anger and out-of-control behavior. “You’re making me send you to time out.” “Don’t make me take that paper away!”
- Gives choices when there aren’t any to give. “It’s time to clean up, okay?” “Are you ready for naptime?” (for more on giving choices see the blog post 5 Tricks to Get Your Kids to Do What You Want.)
- Ignores a situation completely in hopes that the bad behavior will magically disappear.
When using aggressive communication the goal is always to win by overpowering. Winning in this situation is getting the child to do what you want. When using aggressive communication there is more use of you/me statements (“YOU always interrupt ME.”) These statements focus on the other person but never focus on the problem. When you say to your child “You hurt me” your child may feel attacked. An attacked child will typically react by shutting down or becoming defensive and defiant, feeling the need to respond back defensively which most parents typically see as talking back. But if you’d said “I feel hurt” instead there is no attack in the statement which means the child has no reason to take a defensive position.
The aggressive voice tends to speak for others, though usually incorrectly. There is a strong use of the words “always” and “never”. “You always leave a huge mess for me to clean up.” “You never clean up your toys.” These always/never statements tell our children they are all good or all bad, causing them to generalize about themselves and others. This gives children the inner speech of “I never do things well,” or “I always make mistakes.”
The goal of the assertive voice is not for everyone to like you nor is it for you to win the argument or power struggle. The goal of the assertive voice is clear communication that paints a picture of what you want others to do. This is a confident voice that comes from an intention of helping your child be successful instead of making them behave. Let me say that again. Assertive communication has the intent of helping your child be successful, instead of making them behave.
When you use the assertive voice you are making statements about feelings, thoughts, and wishes. The key to assertiveness is to concentrate on ourselves—not focusing on what others might think, feel, say or do in response. You will notice that it is impossible to set limits and take care of people’s feelings at the same time.
Here are a few tips to using assertive language:
- Give the child usable information by telling them what to do. Think of it as painting a picture for them of what you expect. “Sit down and look at me.” “We are going on a walk you have to wear shoes.” Nonassertive example: “Can you sit down and look at me please?” or “You better sit down and look at me.” “Can you put your shoes on so we can go for a walk?” “You better put your shoes on or we aren’t going to go for a walk.”
- Notice your child’s behavior, use descriptive language to clearly communicate the desired goal without judgment. “You put on your shoes all by yourself, you are ready to go.” “You’re sitting down and looking at me, I can tell you’re ready to read this book.” Nonassertive: “Good job, I like the way you put on your shoes. You’re ready to go.”
- Send a nonverbal message of “just do it” with your tone of voice and body language. When you use the nonverbal cues with a clear command you are sending a message with no doubt, creating a sense of safety and allowing the child to obey your commands.
- Be conscious of the intent behind your communication. Remember the intent of assertive communication is clarity. The intent behind your words is more powerful than your actual words. For example, you are not being assertive if your intent is to avoid conflict (passive) or to make/get your child to obey (aggressive). You want to shift your intent to a wholehearted desire for your child to be successful, which will show and you’ll be surprised to see disobedience decrease.
The last thing I want to share to help you be more assertive with your family is the difference between a request and a command.
Command: A command is about nonnegotiable compliance. “Wash your hands and then sit down at the table for lunch.”
Request: Gives your child a choice by asking them to do something for you. “Would you please hand this car to your brother.”
The reason I bring this up is sometimes we give children commands worded as requests. “Would you clean up these legos?” when what you really meant was “get up now and put these legos away.” These confusing commands and requests can really hinder your assertive voice. Children may have a hard time figuring out if you are requesting or commanding, leading to frustration for everyone.
Something else to bring up here is “Please” and “Thank You”. I am a huge believer in manners, but when you give a command and follow it up with “thank you” what you are really saying is “behave well for me; be successful for me; do things for me.” If your child complies with a command follow up with effective praise like, “you did it.” On the other hand, when making requests of your child it is ok to use please and thank you. “Would you please hand this car to your brother. Thank you.” But making a command and adding the word please to it makes it feel like a request, which like I said just causes everyone frustration and confusion. I am not saying you can never say please and thank you, that would be horrible. I am just saying try to only use please and thank you when actually making requests instead of with commands.
The assertive voice is really important in getting your kids to do what you want. Knowing the difference between the three voices (passive, aggressive, and assertive) will make a world of difference in your home. I know this is a mind shift for many people, and you’re going to make mistakes, even I make mistakes. But when you make a mistake and you use the aggressive or passive voice, just rewind what you said and start again with the assertive voice. It’s going to takes practice and your kids will pick it up faster than you think. But be consistent. Consistency is the key to behavior management. Good luck and let me know how it goes.