“Please put your shoes away.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Put your shoes away now.”
“If you don’t put them away you can’t watch cartoons tonight, and maybe we won’t have dessert either!”
(A conversation like this has never happened in your house, right? Didn’t think so. Mine either😉)
When we ask our child to put their shoes away it might seem to us that we are asking them to do an incredibly simple, easy thing that should take a few seconds at most, but often what we’re actually trying to do is to exert some control. We parents have a bit of a habit of doing this with our children at the best of times, but when everything else around us seems out of control and also our children just won’t put their shoes away, the sense of a loss of control can feel like it’s taking us over and seem completely overwhelming.
And then our child refuses, and we realize that all the conventional parenting advice in the world is about to get us into a very sticky spot.
Conventional parenting advice tells us not to back down. Don’t give any impression that you don’t know what you’re doing. Present a united front (with your partner) toward your child.
And once we’re committed to that approach, we have no choice but to dig in. And that gives our child no choice but to dig in the trenches too.
We dig; they dig.
It’s hostile. The shields are up, the swords are out, and a truce seems unlikely.
The problem only gets ‘resolved’ when one person capitulates.
We might realize – possibly even at the point when we said “Put your shoes away now!” where this is going – but feel powerless to stop it. Because what’s the alternative?
Our child will walk all over us and they will NEVER help around the house and our in-laws will think we’re terrible parents and…
Let’s pause for a minute and take a deep breath.
The key idea that I want to convey today is one that I know you’re on board with already: that our relationship with our child is the most important thing in this situation.
And when our relationship with our child is the most important thing – more important than whether they put their shoes away or walk or over us or never help out around the house or what our in-laws think - we can create space to respond differently.
This is called ‘dropping the rope.’
Imagine that conversation again: you ask your child to put their shoes away. You’re picking up one end of a thick tug-of-war rope. Your child says ‘no.’ They’re picking up the other end of the rope. It might seem as though there is now no way out of this situation except to see who can pull hardest.
But there is.
Drop the rope.
But what do we do instead to prevent our child from walking all over us and never helping out around the house and having our in-laws think we are terrible parents?
I choose between two potential responses, depending on whether this is a one-off situation (like a spilled drink) or something that happens regularly (like putting shoes away).
How to handle one-off situations
In one-off situations like a spilled drink I use parent educator Robin Einzig’s tool of modeling graciousness. There’s a long and beautiful post about it here, but the gist of it is that we should “demonstrate and model for them the authentic spirit and intention that we wish for them to possess.” So if we want them to respond graciously and offer to help clean up when we spill a drink, we should respond graciously and offer to help clean up when they spill a drink.
A slightly less abstract way to think about it is to imagine that instead of being your child, it was your closest friend who spilled the drink. Would you say “You made the mess; you clean it up!”? Hand them a rag and stand over them until they did it? Of course not. You’d say “oops!” and grab a rag and start cleaning, or if it was a big spill you’d get two and hand one to them.
Another tool to help think about it is to imagine if we were visiting a friend’s house and spilled a drink. Wouldn’t we already feel mortified without being shamed into cleaning it up?
So in these situations I get two cloths, hand one to my daughter, and start wiping. She will usually start wiping as well, and before long the mess is gone. Once the emotional charge of the event has passed, if it seems necessary I might remind her about what can happen when we put cups close to the edge of the table, but not in an “I’ve told you this a million times” kind of tone.
The beauty of this approach is that it results in an “it doesn’t matter who made the mess; we all help to clean it up” attitude. And don’t we want that in our house?
How to handle regularly occurring situations
In the Modeling Graciousness post Robin also talks about the idea that parents must still “set expectations.” But how do we do that, exactly?
I developed a method after interviewing a professor who studies how children in different cultures do chores, and after reflecting that I was starting to feel walked-all-over when my daughter refused to put her shoes away every afternoon. Modeling graciousness wasn’t helping.
The next time she came home and left her shoes in the hallway, I asked her to put them away. She said “no.”
I responded: “Well, in our family we all help each other out. I’m happy to do it for you this time, and I’ll appreciate your help with it tomorrow.”
[Note the “and” instead of “but,” which would have negated the idea that I’m happy to help.]
It took two days, and then she began putting her shoes away.
Then, after a couple of weeks, we had a few days of backsliding.
I used the same phrase, and waited for her to come and ask for my help with something (which I knew would happen in <5 minutes).
I got down on her level and said, gently and kindly: “Do you remember a few minutes ago I asked for your help putting shoes away? You didn’t want to help me, and now you’re asking me for my help. When you help me it makes me WANT to help you. When you don’t help me, it makes me feel like I don’t want to help you. I’m going to help you now, and tomorrow I’d really appreciate your help with the shoes.”
She does still occasionally forget, but at that point a quick and kind: “I see shoes in the hallway!” reminder is enough.
Putting shoes away is now a habit but, more importantly, we have made the habit of helping each other stronger as well.
No rope required.
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