How to Make Your Child Do What’s Good for Her

“She won’t eat.”

“He doesn’t brush his teeth/hair!”

“He won’t make his bed.”

“She won’t wash properly – the back of her neck is caked with dirt, and she will neither clean it nor let me do it.”

“He hits his little sister all the time.”

As parents, we are all sailing in the same boat. Each of us has some statement to contribute to the above litany.

There is at least one thing that your child does / doesn’t do that bothers you – because he shouldn’t / should be doing it. And you request, remind, ignore it, harangue, nag, plead, shout to no avail. You just cannot reach your child. But you don’t give up, though you come close to doing so innumerable times. Your love for your child keeps you going, hoping against hope that things will change. The point of disagreement becomes an issue before you know it. Over time, you despair of ever resolving this issue.

“She won’t eat.” – You’ve told her she won’t grow tall/strong; she’ll have no energy to do the things she enjoys doing; she’ll have poor immunity, get sick frequently, suffer through the illness and miss having a regular life… but – (shrug).

She understands what you’re saying, but she doesn’t care enough about these benefits of eating. Maybe because they seem so remote (she has to eat 3 times a day for months to see herself 1 inch taller), or she can’t connect with them (she’s got by alright thus far ‘without eating’, and hasn’t fallen ill or had less energy, so she doesn’t take your doomsday forecasts seriously).

There is a way out. It’s a time-tested, world-renowned concept called WIIFM: What’s In It For Me. Marketers use it, motivation coaches use it, people in all walks of life use it professionally. It’s time to bring it into the home, into the family.

You need to think from your child’s point of view – What’s In It For Her. You need to find a benefit your child cares about – and then you need to find a hook. Maybe beauty is the benefit she can connect with. Tell her how important food is for good skin, teeth and hair, for sparkling eyes. Maybe you could find interviews of a celebrity she idealizes and show your child what a vital role food plays in the beauty queen’s regimen.

The WIIFM, the benefit, will be relatively easy to identify. The hook will be more difficult, but it’s doable.

I was conducting a workshop on English as part of an integrated summer program for children. The program included soccer, photography, yoga, and a few other activities. 90% of them loved soccer. I got creative writing essays based on soccer; innumerable photographs related to soccer were offered as project work in photography. In fact, we loved it best when soccer was scheduled before our session so the kids would be done with it, and could settle down. Else, it was always: “How much longer before we can go for soccer?” 🙂

Most children found yoga boring. The yoga and soccer instructors spent a lot of time motivating the children to do yoga: “It will give you greater flexibility – you can play better soccer.” “It will strengthen your muscles – help you to breathe deeply – give you more oxygen and stamina to run faster for longer, to kick harder”… The children got it, but not one ‘bought’ it.

One day, a boy who had weak hamstrings was doing a yoga pose. This group had soccer right after yoga. And the child found that he succeeded in his first attempt at making a particular kind of soccer move – one he had not been able to make thus far. The soccer teacher pointed out: “See? You’ve been doing that yoga pose to make your hamstrings stronger, so you could do this soccer move today.” (Hook!)

The next day onwards, the children were raving about yoga. Not for itself, but because doing specific poses allowed them to move their legs higher, or gave them greater stability while attempting a particular kind of kick etc. The hook had been found! 🙂

Understandably, a few children who were not into physical activity of any kind still avoided both yoga and soccer, while others who were very advanced in one or the other were dissatisfied because they felt the program was too basic, but these exceptions are only to be expected.

As a parent, you need to cater to just one person – your child. Even if you have more than one child, you need to figure out WIIFM for each one separately. Maybe the benefit is the same, but you may need to find different hooks for each child.

 Some issues will still persist. Sometimes, children will continue to be who they are, never mind your best attempts to get them to do what you want. WIIFM won’t work every time, but it will definitely resolve some disagreements.

Why don’t you try it? I’d love to hear what problem you solved. Good luck! 🙂

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂

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Setting Fear Aside to Parent from Love

I was going through a messy divorce, and lived in daily fear that my daughter would be ‘snatched’ from me. I don’t think this fear had any basis in reality, but fears are often like that – they come from nowhere and completely take over your life. In those days, I must have said and done many things that my daughter must have found incomprehensible or weird (because fear held me captive – I was parenting from fear – a literal fear, different from the kind of fear I spoke about yesterday, but fear all the same), but I don’t remember them now. Neither does she.

Thus far, I had managed to prevent my daughter being summoned in court, but that was at an end now. Tomorrow was the day she had to meet the judge. I trembled at the thought that my 4-year old would have to wait outside the judge’s chambers with the lowest of the criminal classes till our case was called. She would be exposed to crass looks, talk and behavior, and there was nothing I could do about it. The big fear, of course, was the possibility that she’d be kidnapped from the court itself, where my soon-to-be-ex-husband might have hired goons waiting for the opportunity to do so. (Ridiculous, isn’t it? 🙂  Today I can smile, but let me tell you, I couldn’t then. Fear is utterly illogical. And it is scary. You have your own fears, so you know exactly what I mean.) By late evening, I was hyperventilating.

My family kept telling me to get a hold of myself. I had to stay in control, else how would I keep things ‘normal’ for her? But sometimes you are beyond the reach of the most obvious, commonsense, loving logic. I was beyond it then.

Somehow, I got through the night and the court appearance. I was limp with relief as we drove back home. When a few days had elapsed, I thought about the entire episode.

Why was I so scared? What was the worst that could happen?

As various dire scenarios flashed through my head, I pondered each of them. If A were to happen, what could I do? If B were to happen, what could I do? Let’s say there’s an outbreak of meningitis. What can you do? Maybe you’ve inoculated your child, but she might still get it.

You can’t prevent things from happening. You can do your best to protect, secure, preempt the negative, but you can’t fool-proof your child’s life against troubles. When a situation arises, you will deal with it to the best of your ability. And that’s the best that you can do. It is the best that anyone can do!

Bad things will happen. To everyone. Including your child. Including my child. Good things will also happen. That is all there is to it.

Everyday there are accidents, natural disasters, earthquakes, quarrels, fights, misunderstandings. Innumerable bystanders get caught in them because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – ‘collateral damage’ is the hi-tech name for it. What can you do?

Nothing.

When once you truly accept that there is absolutely nothing you can do beyond a point – to influence anything, the fear begins to loosen its hold on you.

You can’t fight fear with logic – not if the fear is deeply ingrained. You have to approach it from another direction. “What if my worst fear comes true?” Well, what if it does?

Most parents would say they can’t live without their children. But some parents have lost their children – lost them to illness (when the child is alive but doesn’t recognize its parents), to death, to the vagaries of life (being unable to meet your child because you are in the middle of a divorce, for instance, and your partner has custody and ‘prevents’ your meeting the kid), to uncertainty. Their fear has come true.

But the parents continue to live. Not only do they continue to live, they learn to smile again, to take an interest in life, to be alive. As they should! Getting back to life doesn’t make you a ‘less good’ parent. It doesn’t mean you don’t (or didn’t) love your child, it doesn’t mean you don’t (or didn’t) do your best for your child.  

You are a parent, yes. But you were a person long before you became a parent. Heartbreak will always be a part of life, but denying that you are alive is not the way to deal with a broken heart.

When you are gone, your child will be sad (hopefully! 🙂 ). Would you want her to mope and lose interest in life and becoming a living corpse? NO! She is still alive! And she should live her life with all the verve and gusto at her command! Isn’t that what you would want? After all, she only gets one chance at life!

Why should the rules be different for you?

You are now beginning to deal with your worst fears.

Come back to your daily fear – the one you’re parenting from: what will people think/say?

They will think and say exactly what they want – no matter what you do! There’s no way you can please everyone all the time. It is a waste of time and effort even to try doing so. The only person you can be certain you are pleasing or not is – yourself, so you might as well go ahead and please yourself.

If you’ve got this, you have already lightened fear’s grip on you. You can now parent from love. You can now evaluate: how much of your fear is concern for the child, and how much of it is fear of what others will say / think.

You might still be concerned that being a sculptor or teaching English is not the ‘best’ career option for your child, but you won’t withhold your love or approval if he chooses either of them. So when you ask him to evaluate other, more conventional careers, your motivation will be concern for his future; the driving force will be love, not fear.

And because the driving force will be love, your child will listen to what you have to say, whether or not he goes by it. You will continue to enjoy a loving relationship with your child.

If you are parenting from love, you will be more concerned that your child be true to herself than that she behave like a hypocrite. If someone in the extended family has died (someone she didn’t even know), what’s wrong with her chatting quietly with someone or reading a book at the wake? Who cares if people think she should behave ‘suitably’, sitting mournfully in a corner sniffing into a handkerchief? Not you!

In the abstract, parenting from love involves two people: your child and yourself. In reality, parenting from love focuses on just one person: your child. 🙂

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂


Deconstructing Good Grades

Let’s deconstruct Good Grades. There are two words here: Good, and Grade.

What is a Grade? It is an indication of comparative performance. A grade indicates that on a given day, amongst a specific bunch of people, somebody thought that your child deserved a particular grade.

Change any of the italicized words above, and your child’s grade will be different.

If the individuals in the group change, your child’s grade will change. If there is a different evaluator, your child’s grade will change. And the same child will perform differently on different days at different times.

Your brilliant child may have a headache, and get third rank in the class, as opposed to being at the top. The opposite may also happen!

Some years ago, I’d been trying to force my daughter to learn how to play chess. With her usual grace (our children are almost always graceful, till they decide they’ve had enough, and if they don’t put their foot down, we’ll end up trampling all over them! And I agree with them. 🙂 ), she agreed to take chess classes.

After a month or so, her chess coach suggested she participate in chess competitions and tournaments so she’d play against others and hone her skills. She agreed. At this point, she was making a lot of unforced errors, so both the coach and I expected that a competition would merely expose her to playing matches with real people, rather than solving chess puzzles from books, which is what she’d been doing till then. (No, I didn’t play chess with her – I was busy doing my own thing! 🙂 )

There were brilliant players participating in her age group; they’d already been winning inter-city tournaments for a few years, and were representing their schools in national competitions.

My daughter registers, and needs to play against – I think it was 5 people. One didn’t show up, so she got a walkover. And she drew 1 and defeated the other 3!

She was delighted, and I was in shock (happy too, but that was a very faraway second reaction). As for the coach, he took me aside and said, “What have you been giving her for the past few days?” (!)

Like I said, any child, on a given day, amongst a particular bunch of kids, can achieve (or fail to achieve) anything.

But you choose to ignore this. You like to think you can control results by managing actions. You reason this way: if you can ‘make’ your child study hard enough, she will be well prepared. She will get all the answers right. She will score the maximum grade possible.

And when she doesn’t get the grade you’d like her to get, you lose it.   

Let’s move on to the second word: Good. What is a ‘good’ grade? The grade you’d like your child to get! 🙂

Suppose he does get a ‘good’ grade! 🙂  What then?

Here is the sad truth: you are happy, but only for a bit. Dissatisfaction rears its ugly head soon enough, sometimes as early as a minute after learning about your child’s wonderful grade.

My daughter’s classmate topped the math exam, with 6 marks less than the maximum marks. This is a very competitive child, under constant pressure to top the class, which doesn’t usually happen, so I was very pleased to learn that she’d topped the exam. The next person was as far as another 6 marks below the topper.

When my daughter told me this child had topped, I exclaimed, “How lovely!”

My daughter replied, “Yes, and guess what? She got scolded for getting 6 marks less than the maximum! I tell you, her parents are dictators!”

I didn’t know whether to be shocked or to laugh.

Here’s your child achieving something you’ve been pushing her to do, and when she does it, you chew her out? How long do you think she’s going to try and give it her best before she just gets tired of a goalpost that is constantly shifting farther away?

I’ve had 5-year olds tell me in all seriousness, “You know, if I make a mistake in a test, Mummy hits me with her slipper.”

Parents of primary school kids boast of sending their children for after-school coaching for Math, Science, and languages.  

No wonder your child is burnt out by the time he reaches middle school. When is he going to live his life? When is he going to do it his way?

He’s toed the line (your line!) so long, he’s tired. In addition, adolescence is a hard-to-deny siren that’s pulling him away from your ‘guidance’, and he’s sick of ‘being serious’ about his studies and his sports and his co-curricular activities.

Isn’t there anything you can do? (This is the all-powerful parent ego at work.)

Sure you can! You can be quiet.

Your best strategy is silence. Not a sullen, angry, disappointed, I’ve-done-so-much-for-you-and-I’m-still-killing-myself-to-give-you-a-good-future-but-you-don’t-care-you-can’t-even-do-a-simple-thing-like-study-well-and-get-good-grades silence, but a calm, aloof, it’s-your-choice-my-dear silence.

Bite your tongue. It really will be okay.

Back off. Give him some breathing room. If he doesn’t study, let him be. No action on your part will make him change his ways. Some day he will look around. He will find his peers working towards a career. That itself will spur him on to find his focus.

Instead of getting after him, be available to him so he feels comfortable talking to you about any doubts, confusion or indecision he faces.

Being grade oriented is a foolproof way to hand over your emotions to factors completely outside your control. (You are an intelligent adult, and can see this is not smart.) It is also one of the surefire ways to negatively affect your relationship with your child.

If you have to speak, tell him to do his best, and accept it as his best effort – at that time. Don’t draw conclusions about his career, life, success and happiness because of a grade he got – or didn’t get.  

Try acceptance. You might just be surprised at the result you’ll get.

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂


Motivating Your Child

Motivate (verb): to provide with a motive or motives; incite; impel.

I’d agreed to conduct a few sessions on Fun with English as part of an Integrated Summer Workshop. One day we explored Creative Writing. The next day, a Grade 8 girl’s mother came to meet me.

“I really liked that you made them write something yesterday. My daughter writes quite well. Have you seen what she wrote?”

I told the lady that I hadn’t yet looked at what the children had written.

She continued, “I keep telling her she should write something – if not every day, at least every week. But you know how children are – they don’t listen to their parents. 🙂 I wish you would tell her to write something and show it to you. She enjoys your workshop – I’m sure she’ll be motivated by your telling her, and she’ll write something for you.” She looked hopefully at me.

Many years ago, I was convinced we could motivate our children. Give them enough inducement (enough ‘carrots’) and they would fall in line – with their parents’ wishes, of course. Even with my own child, I would keep trying to ‘motivate’ her to do different things – try skating, solve puzzles, write a journal… The three I mention here were dismal failures. Others had more satisfactory results, but I was beginning to tire of the whole bag of tricks.

It was such a lot of work for me! I had to keep on and on at it. Also, when I’d first start motivating her, it would seem to work. But after a bit, it would take enormous amounts of motivation to get her to make the slightest change.

There had to be a better way, I guessed. So, from being a convinced motivator, I graduated to just flirting with the idea of motivation. Sometimes, I’d just dig my heels in and NOT motivate her. Let’s see what happens, I’d think.

And I found what I’d have realized a long time back if only I’d stopped to think dispassionately about it. (Ah! But that’s the rub – it’s so difficult to be dispassionate about your children. :-)) Nothing happened! Nothing at all – neither good nor bad.

Say I’d been trying to get her to wear a T-shirt she disliked. When she was very young, what seemed to work was, “It’s so nice!” She’d eye it doubtfully, but give in. After a bit, I had to up the ante. “It’ll make me happy if you wear it.” (I know! I’m writing the blog from cold, hard experience! :-)). That didn’t work for too long!

One day, as I was looking through my closet for ‘something to wear’, she handed me a dress that had been hanging there forever. It was appropriate for the occasion, but I didn’t want to wear it. “But you’ve never worn this dress, and it’s been hanging here for months!” she said. Well, years actually, but – er…

I get a direct stare from her. “You should wear it. It’ll look nice on you. It’ll make me happy. I think you’ll look great in it. Think how much money you spent on the dress.” I was handed all my own arguments in one big bundle. I fumbled for a response.

Finally, I resorted to pulling rank. “Listen, I don’t want to wear it, and that’s that.” Obviously, I never again tried to get her to wear the tee (or anything else!) that she disliked.

So: motivation? I don’t know.

At the end of the day, people do what they feel like doing. That explains procrastination as well. You need to work on that report, but you don’t feel like it. You’ll find any number of ‘reasons’ why you couldn’t get to it, and then stress yourself out trying to do a good job and get it in on time.

Why should it be any different for your kids? They are complete human beings (except, with shorter life experiences) in their own right.

Your son draws great cartoons, and he’s doodling stuff all the time. You can appreciate what he draws. You can tell him you’d be willing to let him to take a class in cartooning if he wishes it. That’s about all you can do. Beyond that, it is his call.

Your daughter may be great at gymnastics. She’s so good she could go professional, the teacher at school tells you. You ‘motivate’ her to go to a class. Maybe she’s just not interested! Maybe she’s happy with gymnastics as just an activity.

But you’re so intent on ‘motivating’ her ‘for her own good’ that you keep pushing it at her. Besides, you are a ‘dedicated’ parent, and want to ‘help’ your child fulfill her potential and not ‘waste’ herself (a sentence full of ‘inverted commas’: a life lived inside inverted logic, actually.) You will both feel pressured and unhappy about it. However hard you try to ‘motivate’ her, your effort will end in grief.  

The bottom line is: no one can motivate anyone else. Not as a parent, not as a spouse, not as a friend – it simply ain’t happening. (Think about it: if we could be ‘motivated’ by others, we’d all be fit and super-successful at our jobs! 🙂 🙂 You may be inspired by someone, but motivation is a different ballgame.)

Motivation, the only kind that matters, comes from inside a person. No matter how much you ‘motivate’ him, beyond a point, your son won’t do something he doesn’t want to do. Besides, for how long will you go on motivating him? On the other hand, if he’s motivated, you’ll have to move heaven and earth to deflect him from his chosen path! 🙂

Know, as you try to ‘motivate’ your child, that you are systematically harming your relationship with him.

He will resent your inability to accept his choices – he will resent your inability to accept him. Like everyone else, he wants to be appreciated for who is he now, today – not be treated as a work-in-progress which will be fully appreciated once it is complete.

I told the parent at the workshop what I thought about ‘motivating’ children (or anyone, for that matter). “If her writing is to have any meaning, she must write for herself first – before she writes for anyone else.”

She wasn’t happy with what I’d said, but she saw the point. “But what should I do?”

“Let her be,” I said gently.

What you can do – all you can do – is to encourage your child in whatever he is motivated to do.

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂