If you give an inch, will they take a mile?


It hits out of the blue.  “I want jelly beans for dinner!”   Or, “I don’t want to go to school today!” Perhaps more than a demand it’s a simple request, “May I sleep in your room tonight?”

Your gut tightens haunted by the messages you’ve heard over and over again:
  • Give an inch and they’ll take a mile.
  • Be consistent. 
  • Don’t start a bad habit. 
  • Worse yet, you know if you say, “No” odds are there is going to be a major meltdown. 
But if you say, “Yes” are you giving in?
Are you a wimp?  Is this a battle worth fighting? 

You’re determined to say “no” when you suddenly remember reading Michael Perry’s memoir Population: 485 about life in a small Wisconsin town, in which he vividly describes the pleasure of Sunday dinners during his childhood.  No one remembered quite how it had begun but every Sunday night his mother pulled out the popcorn popper, salt shaker, butter and bowls and began popping corn.  Family and friends dropped in knowing what was being served.  Mind you no other night offered the same menu.  The tradition became so strong and enjoyable that even 20 year later he still found himself, often with ten other family members and friends, returning to his mother’s home for a Sunday supper that consisted of only popcorn.  It makes you wonder, could one jelly bean really matter?  Is it possible to have a dinner of jelly beans and not begin an unending power struggle?  

Can sometimes saying “yes” potentially turn into a delightful family tradition? 

In How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough describes critical character traits for success.

One of them is flexible thinking; the ability to think out of the box and come up with creative solutions.  It is a learned skill.  One that is essential for finding win/win solutions in a problem-solving family.  

But how do you teach it without being taken for a ride?  

·One key factor is understanding that there is a developmental aspect to flexible thinking.  
The first step is learning how to make a choice.  So if you are the parent of a toddler and are flinching at the very thought of “flexible thinking” know your intuition is correct.  Toddlers are learning what the rules are but they can also learn about choices. So before you say, “No,” or respond at all it’s critical to STOP and THINK. You can even say to your child, “Let me think about that for a moment.”  Setting an example and teaching her about impulse control is another vital character trait.  Once you have paused, review your basic expectations.  For Lynn and me our golden rule is: If something is unsafe, hurtful or disrespectful to self, others or the environment it’s our job as the adult to intervene and stop it.  If the behavior or issue doesn’t clearly fall into one of these categories we’re going to find a way to say yes. 
You might think jelly beans for dinner is not healthy!  And right you are.  That’s why you can say “yes” with limited choices.  “Oh, you’d like a jelly bean for dinner.  Okay, would you like a red one or a green one?”  That of course is when he begins shrieking, “I want ten jelly beans!”  But you’ve done your part.  You are being flexible so you can say to him, “I’m working with you and now I need you to work with me.  I said you could have a jelly bean.  Do you want the red one or the green one?  Do you want it next to your vegetables or by your pasta?” 
Of course he’s still shrieking and now you get to teach the skills to develop another crucial character trait – the ability to deal with disappointment.
So you say, “That was disappointing.  That is not what you were thinking.  I can see you are not ready to eat.  Let’s take a few minutes to calm down.”  You might then hold her or let her step away and get her lovie.  When she’s calm you’ll bring her back and you can ask again, “Do you want the red one or the green one?  Do you want it on this side of your plate or that one?” 

When she chooses you can compliment her on being a flexible thinker who is capable and able to handle disappointment and frustration.

  • A second major concern is timing. 
Once you’ve said, “No,” if your child starts to throw a fit, you can’t go back and say, “Fine, what the heck, why not have jelly beans for dinner?  I didn’t want to fight this battle anyway.”  This response simply teaches your child especially a toddler to escalate to get what he wants and he will push for the whole nine yards.  (For an older child you could teach her to say, “Mom/dad,  could we please talk about this,” if you’ve spoken too quickly, but not a young toddler or preschooler.)
  • Preschoolers and older children however have learned about choices. They also have a sense of time and understand “future.”
So for them there are many, many opportunities to teach flexible thinking.  Don’t want to go to school or maybe even more chilling, the question about sleeping in your room? I’ve written about a family I know who gave their child three “mental health days” each school year.  If he stated he didn’t want to go to school that day, they’d simply say, “Oh, do you want to use one of your mental health days?  Then you’ll have two left.  Or, would you like to save it?”  Never in his 13 years of K-12 education did he ever use all three.   Another family told us about their tradition of First Friday campouts – every first Friday of the month they had a “picnic” in the living room and everyone “camped out” in the parent’s bedroom.  That eliminated the begging to be in their room because they could simply say, “Is it first Friday?”  And if it wasn’t – it was coming soon. 

Now if a child is stating he doesn’t want to go to school every day or begs to sleep with you every night there is an undiscovered fuel source that needs to be addressed.

But if it’s that quick, out of the blue moment, consider it a potential opportunity to teach flexible thinking – a critical life skill.

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