"...any time it’s our objective to get another person to behave in a certain way, people are likely to resist no matter what it is we’re asking for. This seems to be true whether the other person is 2 or 92 years of age." - Marshall Rosenberg, in Raising Children Compassionately
A basic precept in unconditional parenting is to give up trying to control children and instead focus on working with them to meet mutual goals. Alfie Kohn calls this a "working with" as opposed to a "doing to" style of parenting. A prime example of how we can begin to work with our children comes from the second principle of unconditional parenting: reconsider your requests.
Unfortunately, the "working with" idea isn't a very common approach to making requests of children. Advice about how to get your kid to do this or that includes strategies that vary from forceful to gentle, but most rest on the untested assumption that the parents' request is inherently valid. The underlying message is that parental authority justifies whatever it is we are asking. From this perspective, solutions to parent-child problems must lie in finding ways to change (read: control and manipulate) children's behavior. Not surprisingly, this parenting mindset leads to a battle of wills, a battle in which parents continually try new and different tactics to get their kids to pick that up, do chores, and not do drugs.
In contrast, the unconditional parenting approach asks us to change ourselves. When conflicts arise, we need to consider if the real problem might actually be that we're making unreasonable requests. Is the request an honest reflection of a need? Or is it just our preference or a way to fulfill the need for control? Why should the child comply? Is the request age appropriate? Are we asking for something that we want for our children without checking to see if it's what they want? Is it really that important? What's the worst that could happen if we let it slide, honestly?
Certainly, there are plenty of things we ask of our kids that are reasonable and necessary. What those are will differ from family to family. Still, if we are to gain the respect and compliance of our kids, we will have a lot better luck if we start by being reflective about our requests.
It also helps to be flexible. Traditional parenting advice will tell us to "be consistent" and not "give in" when our child won't fulfill our demands (for an example of some really atrocious, anti-unconditional parenting advice, see this article). However, if you have a "working with" attitude, an adamant refusal from your child might be a clue that there's a problem with your request. If so, it's OK to change your mind once you're reconsidered (more on this topic later when we visit the unconditional parenting principle on not being rigid). This won't thwart authority. Rather, it will show your child that you're human, fallible, compassionate and fair enough to make the right decision after you've made a mistake. Genuine respect goes a lot further than fear.
Another critical aspect of making requests to our children comes from the way in which we ask. If we are stuck in the mindset that only the parents' needs or desires matter ("because I'm the mom and I said so!"), we are bound to encounter conflict with children. Then we are back to controlling rather than working with.
Fortunately, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a powerful, effective, and incredibly compassionate way to ask for what we need, from children or anyone else. With NVC, the focus in on how to satisfy the needs of both parties. Requests are met because of trust, compassion, and respect that flows between parent and child. Consider the difference between "Your room is such a mess! I told you to clean it. Do it now or I'll..." versus "I see that you haven't cleaned your room and I feel very frustrated. I really need some help in keeping the house tidy. Will you please pick up your room?"
The flip side is that occasionally the child will not be able to fulfill that request because she has her own needs. But just think, does your spouse or friend always do what you ask? Would you punish them if they didn't, especially if the reason was valid? If we truly respect our children as human beings, we should extend them the same courtesy. We should be willing to live with them not always doing what we ask. We can let go of the power struggle and instead think in terms of mutual respect. The upshot is that refusals will happen less often because a person who feels respected instead of controlled is a lot more willing to comply in the first place.
So imagine... your child cleaning up her room, brushing her teeth, or doing her chores because she trusts your decisions and respects your need for cleanliness -- not because she doesn't want to get grounded. Imagine asking only for things that really matter. Imagine rethinking your request if you don't get what you ask for. Then imagine that you can sometimes accept her not doing what you ask because she has her own needs and you care about them. Imagine the conversation that takes place each time, without struggle, blame, criticism, or threats. That's unconditional parenting.
For further reading
Examples of using NVC with children, based on an excerpt from Rosenberg's Raising Children Compassionately
Tools, resources, and a weekly parenting tip series, based on NVC
Making requests to children under five (from yours truly):
Listening and Asking:
Teaching Children to Listen, from Simplicity Parenting
25 Ways to Talk so Children Will Listen, from Dr. Sears
Making Requests - 5 Reasons We Avoid Them (and 15 excuses), from Psych Central
How Can I Get My Kids to Listen to Me, from motherInc.
Any other thoughts about making requests to kids? Please share your ideas or ask anything!