“If I Could Just Make Them Understand!”

child not listeningThere’s this thing that happens.  It has to do with setting limits.  And understanding.

Here are a few examples of what it sounds like:

“I’ve explained why too much TV is not good for them over and over again, and they just don’t seem to understand and won’t turn it off!  How do I explain it in a way that they will understand why I am setting a time limit and turn it off by themselves?”

“My son wants to know WHY he has to brush his teeth.  He asks every day, and it’s driving me crazy.  I have explained about cavities, shown him pictures of tooth decay, told him that his breath will smell bad, done experiments about bacteria to show him what happens, and he still challenges me every day!  What can I say that will convince him that it’s important so he’ll take responsibility for doing it?”

“How do I explain to my child why I need time to myself, or why my spouse and I need time to ourselves after she goes to bed?   I just can’t seem to explain it to her satisfaction–she just keeps arguing that I don’t need it!”

I spent an hour this morning explaining to him why we have to wear clothes in public.  It went on so long that we were late to school.  I can’t do this every morning–he just wears me out.  I explain it and then he just says that he disagrees and he thinks it would be fine if kids come to school naked.  What do I do?”

What do all of these statements have in common?

Two things.

Myth.   And Fear.

How so, you ask?   Happy to oblige.

First, they reflect the myth that understanding equals acceptance.  The belief that people–in this case, children–will be happy to accept a rule or a limit or a decision if it is logical.   The problem is, that’s usually  not the case.

Wait, I can hear you saying.  It is too the case.  As adults, we understand that speed limits are there for a reason and going too fast in our cars is dangerous–a logical explanation–and that contributes to our willingness to respect those laws.  When we are hiking, and there is a sign that says “do not go beyond the ropes”, we may very well respect that because we know that it must have been put there for a reason, to protect us from a precipitous drop or slippery conditions that might result in serious injury.  It makes sense, so we (most of us–we all know those people who don’t) accept it.  Adults like logic.

Yup.  We do.  That’s true.  You’ve got a point there.

And there are key differences.  Differences that matter.

Difference #1: You’re an adult.  Your kids aren’t.  Your thinking works differently, by virtue of (presumably) mature brain development.  They don’t have that.  If you don’t know much about children’s brain development, it’s worth knowing about…check out Whole Brain Child (about brain development in childhood) and Brainstorm (about brain development in adolescence), both by Dan Siegel.

Difference #2: The analogy fails.  You’re not standing there arguing with the park ranger for two hours a day, every day, about the rope.  You’re not standing there shouting “SHOW me the precipice!”  “I don’t believe you.”  “I bet if I walked over there, nothing would happen.”  “I want to see the data on the number of people who fell.”  “When was the last time someone was injured over there?”  “That’s just because those idiots were careless and didn’t have trail skills.  I’m different!” You’re not suggesting (I hope) that you consider that appropriate behavior.  (To be fair, there are a few people (I was going to use a different word than “people” there for a minute) who do that.  I’m going to go ahead and assume that none of us have undying admiration for that “person” (oh, the temptation) and believe that the park service should provide a full-time ranger to stand next to the rope sign to have those discussions with patrons all day, every day, to satisfy the curiosity (sure, let’s call it that) of a particular individual.)

And yet, that’s what you’re doing.  You’re taking up your position at the rope, all day, every day (or what seems like the equivalent) to explain to your “patrons” why they can’t cross it and respond to their arguments.

Why are you doing that?

Because you believe that if you could convince them, they would happily accept it, internalize it, and abide by it?

Yeah.  That’s a myth.

If your children are young (under 7 or so), logic and understanding exist on a parallel plane to behavior.  They have little to no relationship with one another, very little cross- parallel tracks memeover.  Young children are not creatures of logic, they are creatures of impulse and emotion.  It’s a different way of seeing, being, and thinking about the world.  To be blunt, they don’t really care about your explanations. And older children can process logic…but (news flash) they might not actually be looking for a logical explanation.

“Oh, but that’s not true!  My child does.  When I explain things, he is much more cooperative!”   Yes.  I believe you.  That happens.  That happens in a context in which their connection with you is strong.   The time that you spend in intense, calm connection as you explain yourself is at least as much a piece of why they become cooperative as anything else.  Let’s put it this way–if you shouted/screamed the explanation at them, would they listen to it and become more cooperative because you gave an explanation?  Not likely.  The content is not usually what they’re after.  And of course, all children are different–some are a bit more like older children, cognitively.  For the most part, with young children, reliance on logic in the direct face of significant protest or challenge is largely a waste of time.

But wait.  Isn’t it respectful to explain why we set the limits or have the rules that we have?  We don’t want to set completely arbitrary rules, and a big part of conscious parenting is reflecting on and even questioning the reason and necessity for the rules and limits that we set…isn’t it?

Yes.  Of course it’s respectful to explain our limits, boundaries, and rules, and we should always try to do that.  Yes, of course we don’t want to set arbitrary rules.  Yes, of course, reflecting on and questioning our own decisions about limits and rules is a critical part of conscious and mindful parenting.  Yes, yes, and yes.

And that’s where the second issue comes in:  Fear.

Let me explain.

First…help me out here.  Take a minute and scroll back up to the 4 examples that were given at the beginning, and read through them again.  I’ll wait.

You back?  Great.  Did any of those examples say that the parent didn’t explain the rationale?

Hmm.  Perhaps you see what I’m getting at here.

In all of the examples–and indeed, *every time* questions like these appear–an explanation has been given.  Explanation is not the problem in those passages.  The problem is that the child “isn’t satisfied,” “doesn’t understand,” “isn’t convinced,” or “disagrees.”

And to that, my admittedly blunt question is:  “So?”  So your child isn’t satisfied.  Or they don’t understand.  Or they aren’t convinced.  Or they disagree, even vehemently.  Is that a problem?  What is it in us that makes us feel as if we need to fix or avoid those situations?

I’ll tell you what’s in us.  Fear.

Fear of our children’s anger at us if we cut off discussion and hold the limit firmly and without apology.  Fear that we are repeating what may have happened to us as children by “abandoning” or ignoring a child when they are desperately wanting us to explain something (which is kind of impossible if you have already explained it.)  Fear that they won’t like us if we set boundaries and insist that our needs and preferences matter.  Fear that a “good and patient” parent would answer all of their children’s questions until their child was “satisfied,” and if we don’t do that, well, then we won’t fit that description.  Fear that we are not living up to our own standards of what a respectful parent does.  Fear of standing in our own power, being confident that we can set an important limit without our children agreeing or understanding, if need be–fear that that will make us punitive and controlling.  Fear.

And okay, in the true spirit of Monty Python (fear and surprise, surprise and fear–there, I’ve just “outed” myself), let me just say that at the beginning, I said there were two problems:  Myth.  And Fear.  But now, I realize there’s a third one:  TNWGOH.

That’s right.  That’s Not What’s Going On Here.

This one might be the most important of all (as the third, almost forgotten, one always is).

You can’t satisfy your children with an explanation, and you can’t manage to convince them and you can’t seem to explain to their satisfaction because, well, TNWGOH. 

They don’t always want to understand.  They’re not always asking to understand.  They’re not always having trouble understanding.  They get it.  They sometimes just don’t like it.  And they want you to know that they don’t like it.  And this is the way that they’re expressing it, by harnessing what they know to be your wonderful intentions–the voice that says “it’s respectful to explain, I don’t want my kids to face ‘because I said so’ like I did when I was a kid”–to keep you engaged in a spiral of distraction that keeps the thing from happening that they don’t want to happen.   

Pause.  Breathe.  Read the last two paragraphs again.  The ones in bold.  Maybe out loud.

You’re not failing at explanation.  You’re not at a loss for words.  You don’t need help with how to explain this to your child (unless you haven’t explained it at all.)  You don’t need a way to convince them.

You simply need to explain.  Once.  Maybe twice.  You answer their questions, within reason.  You hear their insistence for what it is:  protest, not confusion or lack of understanding.  You stop tilting at windmills, thinking that logic matters.  You accept their feelings and acknowledge their disappointment or disagreement.   You have confidence that your explanation was accurate and sufficient, whether they agree or not.  And then you move forward, holding and carrying through on the limit from a place of confidence in your leadership, and no guilt for not engaging in distraction disguised as an endless spiral of explanation.

You’ve explained why too much TV is not good for them.  They disagree.  When the time limit is up, turn it off.  Done.

Your son doesn’t want to brush his teeth.  You explain–simply.  “It’s something that needs to be done every day to get bacteria off of your teeth.”  (No videos of decay, please–that’s excessive, at least for a young child, and fear is never a good tactic.) Choose playfulness with a young child.  Let an older child take responsibility for their own self-care, unless they want your help.  Done.

Tell your child that all people need time to themselves sometimes, and this is your time.  Then take it, without apology.  It’s okay if they’re upset.  You’re not abandoning them, you’re taking care of yourself.  Done.

Let him know that he needs to wear clothes when he goes out, if it is in fact necessary (if it isn’t, let him wear pajamas or be naked in the car until he gets to school, and he can change in the car!).  No waiting an hour.  Ask him if he’d like to put on his clothes by himself or whether he’d like your help to put them on.  If he keeps asking why, say “I know it can be hard to understand”, and help him put on his clothes (or take them in the car.)  Done.

Yes. Sometimes they really do want to understand.  You can know those times when they are not combined with stubborn resistance to a limit that you are holding.  There will be time at a less hurried or calmer time to explain if they really want to understand.  Shower them with as many endless explanations as you’d like.  In moments of tussle, let go of the myth and the fear and try to remember WGOH.

You can do this.


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