You're not Doing Your Kid Any Favors...When You Count

[We are looking at several common parenting techniques which are damaging to your child in the long run.]

You're not doing your kid any favors when you count. You know what I mean. “Alex, come here. Alex, come here. Alex, come here. Alex come here right now. Mommy is not happy. ALEX! Alex, if you don't come here right now, I am going to tell Daddy. Alex. ALEX! ALEX!!! One, Two, Three...” [Alex hotfoots it the other direction...]

I do not know where the idea came from that a countdown is a good way to instill fear or coerce obedience, but this belief is amazingly widespread. Go to your local grocery store this afternoon—I bet you will see a “counter.” If you must count, start at three and work backwards. At least then you have a concrete point at which you stop counting and start chasing. If you count up, you might be at “thirteen, fourteen…” and your child is long gone.

What is the fundamental issue here? That is the question you need to ask yourself in every parenting situation. Always reduce everything to the most basic element. Parenting is all about determining the core issue, deciding if it is a battle worth fighting, and if it is, how to win that battle. There may be a situation that might not be going exactly as you would prefer, but it is not dangerous. You might choose to let your child figure it out for herself or learn a tough lesson. The key is if you choose to fight the battle, you must win.

The problem with counting is that it tells your children several things: you doubt yourself, they are in control, they have some time before you get really serious, and you know how to count. Now, while the ability to count is very helpful in life, its value to parenting is far outweighed by the other three elements. Let's look at them one at a time. 

First, your kids will not respond well if they think you doubt yourself. Now, I am not advocating an “I'm never wrong” attitude. The point is that you must present a calm, focused exterior to your child when you are in the middle of a “showdown.” This can be incredibly difficult in the middle of the supermarket. The issue, however, actually starts at home. From the time that your child is capable of responding to you affirmatively or negatively (for my two kids this was about 7-8 months) you need to insist on immediate obedience. This may sound harsh or over the top, but if you insist that when Daddy or Mommy gives an order it must be obeyed, you will not find yourself in the middle of the grocery store with a red face proving that you did in fact go to kindergarten--”One, two, three...” 

Your confidence must be built one small incident at a time in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc. When you tell your child to do something (come here, pick that up, put it back, stay still), you must follow through. The difficulty is that you are probably tired, frustrated, and very ready for the kids to be in bed so that you can take a deep breath and put your feet up. It is often easier to say, “You made a mess, now pick it up. Henry, pick it up. Henry, pick it...never mind. Daddy will get it. Just go brush your teeth.” When you get flustered and frustrated, you teach your kids that they simply have to hold out long enough to get you worked up. Then, you will lose it, and they will get to do what they wanted (in this case not pick up...). The confidence that you have when you are in aisle 3 and you say, “Henry come here” that he will indeed immediately return to your side is built at home when you say, “Henry pick that up” and then insist that he immediately do it. 

When my kids were less than a year old there were plenty of times that I am sure that they did not understand what I was telling them to do. However, I made them obey every time. My wife and I were laying the foundation for future obedience. If your one-year-old pulls a book off of a shelf, tell him to put it back. Normally, he just stares blankly, or perhaps reaches for the next book in line. Your reaction cannot be either to blow up, or just to laugh, shake your head and go back to what you are doing. If the books are ones with which you do not mind that he plays, say nothing in the first place. Let him go. That is your parenting prerogative. If, however, you draw the line in the sand with a “Put that back,” you have to follow through. For the 1-year-old old that means walking across the room, pointing to the book on the floor and calmly saying again, “Put that back.” He may pick it up because you point at it. If he does pick it up, tap the shelf and say “Put it here.” Sometimes, it works immediately, and he will return the item to its proper place. Most times, however, he will not even pick it up when you point to it. That is fine, but you are going to teach him to obey. You will pick up the book and put it back in his pudgy little hand. Then you will point to the shelf and say “Put it back.” If he still does not understand, you will hold his hand and guide it through the motion of returning the book while saying “Put it back.” When the two of you have completed the task, you will pick him up, give him a huge hug, rub his back and tell him what a great job he did. The key is that you are going to win the battle. This may sound silly, but it really does start this early. Your child needs to know that obedience is expected every time right away, and you need to have the confidence that it is going to happen. 

This principle must be expanded out to nearly every parenting situation. If you tell your child she must finish her peas, you must follow through (even guiding her hand through the lifting of peas to her mouth). If you tell your little guy that he is going to brush his teeth before bed, you walk him through the process even if he complains. If you tell your child that she is going to wear this outfit, you do not back off when she wails. You do not beg, threaten, plead, and ultimately count. You tell your child kindly that this is what is going to happen, and then you assist as necessary, but you act as the adult. You must be in charge. 

Following through on little issues like this will give you the confidence in later years to give a command and know it will be followed.

[The second and third problems with counting will be discussed later this week in the second half of this article.]

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