My boss has a knack for finding a third option when you present him with what you thought were two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive options. This third option often involves more work, but a better payoff in the end. This knack has got him to where he is today, president of a successful mid-sized company.
When parenting a disagreeable child, it’s all too easy to fall into the two-option trap — to consider that your only options are YOUR way or your CHILD’S way.
The other night, The Little Skeptic Boy was completely unfocused on getting ready for bed. This is not atypical, so my frustration was not only due to the events of that night, but also represented the compounded frustration of many nights like this. His delays meant that now, despite my many warnings that this would happen, we would be unable to read The Lightning Thief once he got into bed — there just wasn’t enough time anymore. This was not well-received by the LSB.
Soon, we arrived at a standoff: the LSB defiantly laying on the couch, arms crossed, legs locked, saying “I’m not getting ready for bed unless you tell me we’ll get to read Percy Jackson”, and me standing over him, in a similar pose, saying in an annoyed voice, “I’m sorry, there’s no time for that now, you need to just do your chores and get in bed. At this point, I don’t think there’s time to read anything.”
This standoff continued for a little while, and there was a very real danger of me and the LSB turning into the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax (or Arthur Dent and the bulldozer, if you prefer).
Fortunately, somewhere in the back of my head, someone dug into my memory banks and pulled out a couple of tidbits.
The first was an interview we had done on the Podcast Beyond Belief with Dr. Christine Carter, who wrote the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. One of the things she talked about on the podcast (Episode 5, by the way) was to just take a moment and breathe. If you just take a moment and breathe when you’re ready to fly off the handle, you’re already ahead.
So I breathed. And my pose relaxed a little.
And I also remembered what she had said about children feeling small when they are disciplined, and how feeling small can lead to a worse outburst, spiraling out of control. I looked down at the Little Skeptic Boy, and behind the crossed arms, the locked legs, and the furrowed brow, I saw someone feeling very small. Getting mad at him would only make him feel smaller and entrench him further.
Then I remembered my boss, he who magically pulls third options out of a hat. And I thought If he can find third choices, why can’t I?
It doesn’t always have to be about MY way or HIS way. This is definitely not about winning and losing. My goal is to get LSB to bed at a decent hour with a minimum of disruption. Can that goal still be met without making him feel like a second-class citizen? Can we find a way where he is willing to do what he needs to do without feeling like he was buffaloed into it?
I unlocked my arms, got down on my knee next to the couch so I wasn’t towering over him anymore. I put my arm around his shoulder. Just in that motion, I saw him relax his stance a little.
“I know you’re sad about not reading Percy Jackson tonight,” I said, “but maybe we should read some of that Star Wars book you got from the school library. It’s due back in a couple days, isn’t it?”
His arms uncrossed. His legs relaxed and bent. His forehead was no longer etched with Valles Marineris.
He said, “Or we could read the LEGO book about the Mistlands Tower.”
I smiled. ”That’s a good one. Let’s go.”
And just like that, it was over. We walked down the hall together, and he finished his chores, kissed his mother goodnight, hopped into bed, and we read that book instead. You’d think that’s where this little story would end, right?
For a few weeks now, he’s been wanting to go to sleep with the main light on in his room. OK, no problem there (we switch it off after he’s asleep), but lately he’s used that opportunity to get up and read more books or play with toys — everything except go to sleep. So I’ve been trying to encourage him to go back to having the main light off (there’s plenty of light without it, don’t worry).
So we finish reading, I kiss him goodnight, and suggest that maybe the light should be off. He protests. ”It’s just too dark without it. It’s scary.”
“How about this?” I say. I switch the light off and head towards the bed. I climb into bed with him and hug him again. ”How about I stay in here with you until you’re asleep. Would that work?”
He smiles. ”Okay.”
Score two wins for “Option Three”. We each gave up a little. He gave up on the Percy Jackson book and on the light, but still got his main needs met: he got to read something, and he got to feel safe while falling asleep. I gave up on my stance that it was too late to read anything, and I gave a little of my time while he fell asleep, but I still got my needs met: I got my child into bed and asleep without further disruption.
And as a bonus, I got to watch him fall asleep.
You can’t beat that.