Home > musing > Do what I want or do what I really want

Do what I want or do what I really want

I’m on my way out to a picnic in Central Park on this glorious Sunday morning, and I plan to write a much more thorough post in response to this New Yorker article on overparenting that my friend Chris Wiggins sent me, but today I just wanted to impart one idea I’ve developed as a mother of three boys.

Namely, kids don’t ever want to do what you want them to do, especially when they’re tired, and it’s awful to feel helpless to get them to something without ridiculous, possibly empty threats, or something worse.

What to do?

My solution is pretty simple, and it works great, at least in my experience. Namely, if I’m getting no response from a reasonable request from my, say, 4-year-old, then I form a separate request which is easier for me and less good for them. And then I offer him a choice between doing what I want or doing what I really want.

Example: it’s bedtime (i.e. 7pm, which we will come back to in further post, which I’m considering calling “In defense of neglectful parenting”) and my kid doesn’t want to stop watching Star Wars Lego movies on Youtube. I’ve asked repeatedly for him to pause the movie so he can brush his teeth, get into his pajamas, and have me read his favorite bedtime story (currently: “Peter and the Shadow Thieves”).

Instead of screaming, picking him up and dragging him to the bathroom, which is increasingly difficult since he’s the size of a 6-year-old, I simply make him an offer:

Either you come brush your teeth right now and I read to you, or you come brush your teeth now and I don’t read to you, and you’ll have to go to bed without a bedtime story. I’m going to count to five and if you don’t come to the bathroom to brush your teeth when I get to “5” then no story.

Here’s the thing. It’s important that he knows I’m serious. I will actually not read to him if he doesn’t hurry up. To be fair, I only had to follow through with this exactly once for him to understand the seriousness of this kind of offer.

What I like about this is the avoidance of drama, empty threats, and physical coercion, or what’s just as annoying, a wasted evening of arguing with an exhausted child about “why there are bedtimes”, which happens so easily without a strategy in place.

Categories: musing
  1. May 5, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I just had a mini battle this morning. It’s good to hear your view of this. My daughter’s right in the middle of the rolling eyes phase. I gave her a choice and she took neither so I took her ipod. She’s now doing her homework.


  2. mb
    May 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Empty threats are a killer, never make them. If you do that, you will rarely have to follow through on any threat. Kids are not stupid.


  3. May 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Oh yes. My formula was (1) clear requirement, eg go to bed, (2) exact timing, eg ‘on the count of 3’ and (3) credible threat.


    • May 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      But it’s not just about “credible” – I prefer it to also be relevant. For example, if my kids are in the kitchen annoying me while I’m cooking, I tell them they can either go to their room to play or they can help me cook. One of my kids has gotten to be quite a cook!


  4. John Haller
    May 6, 2013 at 2:18 am

    Our trick was to give them a choice-do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes? It was so obvious, that it made everyone laugh and then they went happily to bed. They are now in their 30s and we still laugh, or at least I do! The youngest recently turned me on to your column. I really enjoy your insights. Thanks!


  5. Irene
    May 6, 2013 at 5:01 am

    My son’s now 29 and when he was small I used similar tactics – eventually he started to say “Don’t you 1-2-3- me”. Still, his friends knew that I would always carry out my threats.
    His friends’ parents said that he was the best behaved of the group.


  6. Dan L
    May 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    But what if the Star Wars Lego movies on YouTube are more important to him at the time than the bedtime reading? To make good on your threat (er, offer), you have to not only be willing to skip the bedtime story, but you also have to be willing to force him to brush his teeth right away. Couldn’t that conceivably involve screaming, dragging, etc? (Not all children are capable of making the obvious “right” choice here.)

    My son happens to be old enough that I can generally get him to do stuff. My problem now is the constant whining, moaning, and belly-aching. “Bedtime ALREADY??? I didn’t get to do ANYTHING fun. .”

    Btw, I envy all parents who can get a kid to bed by 7pm, at any age.


    • May 6, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. I think it’s because I’ve convinced him that one of those two options will happen. There’s no third option called “continue to do what you’re enjoying right now”.


  7. ionf
    May 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Yes, this is very effective. It strikes me that it’s what the Democratic Party does. “Well, you don’t have to support our candidate. You could support the much less palatable and probably insane Republican.”


  8. May 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

    your a wonderful mother


  1. May 6, 2013 at 7:04 am
  2. September 7, 2013 at 8:28 am
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