You Can’t Make Me!

“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” It isn’t just something over-stimulated three-year-olds scream at their beleaguered mothers. If you’ve ever heard those words, or just experienced the dawning realization that your child has adopted this attitude, you know how frustrating it can be. The worst part? He’s right. You can’t make him.

Before he could even talk, my firstborn tried to teach me this immutable law of parenting. No amount of rocking, patting, nursing, soothing, ignoring, or sleep training could MAKE him sleep. He went to sleep when he was darn good and ready and not a minute sooner. My sleep deprived brain vaguely recalls that he got darn good and ready around sixteen months old. 

Like most new parents, I was slow to learn. My second-born tried again to teach me the same lesson. At three years old, EV-ER-Y-THING he ate at the Chinese buffet came back up and out—right onto the table, in front of a restaurant full of diners and our poor, poor server—when I thought I could MAKE him eat asparagus.

It can be a challenge to accept that we can’t control these little people. As adults, who are bigger, stronger, and (in theory) smarter, we should be able to MAKE them behave the way we want them to, right? In reality, no one can force another person—adult or child—to open their mouth to eat or speak, to sleep, or to use the bathroom when and where we want them to. 

Even a dozen years into parenthood, I hadn’t quite accepted the truth. Don’t get me wrong—my kids are generally well-behaved, respectful, compliant. This might actually be the reason it’s so shocking and infuriating when they won’t do what I ask. The one shining example that stands out in my mind was a couple of years ago when we had some friends over for a day of playing and swimming in our backyard. The moms and I have been friends since college, and our kids have been friends since birth. Everyone was excited for a day together. Well, almost everyone.

My introverted oldest had holed up in his room instead of hanging out. I called him downstairs and told him to go outside with his friends. He refused. I insisted. He still refused. Really, I explained, it’s not optional. Nope, not happening. We were at a standstill. I had to make a decision and do it fast. I was unsure how to proceed. Was this even an offense worthy of punishment? Didn’t I have to DO something because he willfully disobeyed? Wasn’t that my parenting obligation? But, was I really going to punish him for not having fun? 

Lacking any creativity, I fell back on the modern parent go-to—I took away his phone. To my surprise, he handed it over willingly. Without complaint, he marched right back upstairs, where he stayed the rest of the day. Lame? Maybe. I second guessed myself—shouldn’t he be angry about his consequence? Should I have been tougher? Should I have imposed a punishment he would argue and complain about? I think in his mind, it was a fair trade for his right to decide what to do, and it turned out to be just the solution I needed. It was a punishment inasmuch as any kid hates being without his phone. He knew I meant what I said and that I wasn’t just going to set aside my expectations because he was in a mood.

However, the really important part was what it didn’t do. The consequence didn’t shame or manipulate him. It didn’t damage our relationship. It was just what a consequence should be–fair, predictable, enough but not too much. I got my point across without making us both feel awful in the process. I don’t need a consequence to guarantee my children’s submission because I am not seeking unquestioning compliance from my kids.

Consequences are for teaching. For me, a consequence should be annoying and inconvenient, even convincing or compelling when circumstances require it. Consequences should also maintain a child’s dignity and self-control. I want my children to know that they have power. My goal is for them to feel fully capable, confident, and clear-headed in their decision-making. 

I could perhaps spank, manipulate, bribe, or shame a three-year-old into eating asparagus, but that would only get me so far. Would any of those result in a teenager who respects me enough to listen to my opinion on dating, managing his money, or how fast to drive his car? Who trusts me enough to do what I ask (most of the time) because he knows I have his best interests at heart? Who feels connected and respected enough to tell me about the good and bad parts of his day so I don’t have to sneak a peek at his phone while he’s showering in order to know what’s happening in his life?

Children learn what they live. A manipulated child learns how to manipulate or that being manipulated is part of the deal to receiving love. Withholding love or acceptance when a child misbehaves teaches him that love is conditional, that it is earned through gaining the approval of others. (What a dangerous belief for a teenager to hold, no?) A child bribed with toys or treats learns that motivation and satisfaction come from without, not from within. A child who is smacked learns that smacking is how you get what you want. 

Like all parents, I have said and done things in anger or frustration for which I am not proud. While shaming, bribing, and withholding love were never my go-to strategies, I am ashamed to say that years ago, I smacked a toddler’s hand or behind occasionally when my patience was stretched thin. I still wonder–how many smacks until a child starts to believe smacking is the right way to get others’ obedience? Is the fifth, twentieth, or hundredth smack the one that would, decades later, give my son permission to smack his girlfriend when she embarrasses him in front of his friends. Which smack would be the one that convinces my daughter that it’s okay for people she loves to smack her? And so I stopped smacking. Any of us can stop smacking, shaming, bribing, or withholding if we decide to.

So if you come to my house and find me seemingly at odds with a teenager who won’t do what I ask, don’t judge me too harshly. That’s kind of the way I want it to be. I’m not letting him walk all over me, but I’m also not doing everything I could to make him do what I say. To call this parenting thing a success, I don’t have to MAKE him do what I want. I’ll consider it a success if he can face life’s choices with confidence and deal with the both good and bad that follow with grace.  

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