I’ve been talking about the needs of children. Today I want to discuss the third (and in many parent’s eyes the most annoying) need – personal power and autonomy. Yes, power. If you think children can’t possibly have power, just watch a young child at a grocery store, toy store or restaurant get what he wants. Better yet, think about the last time you had a really important phone call and your child would not go play by herself for 10 minutes (which she is very capable of doing). How is this power? 

Children are very savvy at getting what they want: attention, entertainment or avoiding things like cleaning up. Part of our job as parents is to help our children learn how to channel their power for the positive. To learn how to help solve problems, learn life skills and to respect and cooperate with others. Children quickly grow to develop autonomy (the second they start crawling away from you as a baby) and initiative (I can do it myself!). These are some of the first developmental tasks nature sets for them. With these tasks come the power struggles.

When we are faced with a such a power struggle it is tempting to use our own power and greater strength (we are bigger than they are, right?) to quickly squash the issue. We can just ‘make’ our children conform to our will, can’t we? Well, not really. In the short term, this type of authoritarian discipline may work depending on your child’s temperament. We want to think long term, however.

It is important to remember what kind of person we want our child to become. Of course we want our child to be happy but better still we all probably want him to also be competent, to be able to cooperate, solve problems, take initiative, help others, etc. Believe it or not, by learning some strategies early on, we will be helping our children to become more confident adults. 

Screaming, yelling and lecturing children is simply ineffective. Children don’t listen when they are feeling scared, hurt or angry. Punishment may get immediate results for the parent (but often it does not) but it simply stops the learning process in it’s tracks. What we want is to invite cooperation from our children. We want to avoid making them feel powerless. Powerlessness manifests itself differently in different children. In some, it makes them like limp rags – ‘I can’t do anything anyway so why try.’ Other children expend all their energy in negative ways to make sure they are powerful. These children are often the bullies we hear so much about. 

So does this mean we need to let our children have all the power, to do as they like? No. Permissive discipline is just as damaging as authoritarian discipline. We want a moderate approach. Montessori philosophy talks about freedom with limits. If we give our children the tools to be independent but also give them some limits to go along with their age and developmental level we will find them to (usually) be more cooperative and happy. 

Get children involved. Allow them to help cook dinner, separate the laundry, wash the car. Not only do these things help children feel confident and competent, they get extra time with you which is the best gift we can give.

Establish routines. Young children need order. By following basic routines whenever possible children can make better sense of their lives. No, you don’t have to live by a strict timetable. Keep a general routine. After waking up we eat breakfast, get dressed, pack our bags and drive to daycare. When children know what to expect they tend to be better at cooperating.

-Give limited choices. Make sure you are ok with the choices. Do you want to wear your green shirt or your blue shirt? Would you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Do you want to put your stuffed animal in your backpack on on the seat in the car? When your child refuses to comply with these choices but tries to negotiate others be firm. “You can wear your green shirt or your blue shirt. If you can’t choose I will choose for you.” Believe me, every child will try to find out if you mean what you say. Make sure you do!

In my next post I’ll talk about the fourth need of children and give you some more strategies to help make parenting a little easier and help your child become more confident and cooperative. For now, give these ideas a test run. Let me know how you fare!

-Information for this post was taken from the book ‘Positive Discipline for Preschoolers’ by Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin and Roslyn Ann Duffy.

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