By Genevieve Simperingham
This article offers some tips to maintain a positive atmosphere around chores in the family and generally help build the team spirit.
The only cooperation worth having is that which is given freely by a child, not because he has been frightened into obedience, but because he feels loved, respected, and understood, and consequently wants to treat his parents with love and respect in return. ~ Jan Hunt
As parents we put a lot of time and energy into helping our children complete the tasks that need to be achieved, from guiding little children to wash their teeth to supporting our teens through their assignments, exams and other projects.
Power struggles. Children can easily get lost in their own world and not manage to shift their attention to their parent’s requests or reminders of tasks to be done. It can feel like the parent is living in the world of endless jobs and the child is living in their world of play. And that can easily feel frustrating and even unfair for parents already stressed and at maximum capacity.
When a parent feels ignored, they easily start to anticipate more resistance, and sometimes the parent only has to think about talking to their child about tasks and chores to become highly stressed. Yet when the parent repeats their requests, the child can hear all that tension in their voice, and the child then tends to disconnect even further. The more a child anticipates or experiences criticism or coercion, the more resistant they become. The parent repeats again with increased volume. The child ignores, walks away or fobs their parent off with “I’m busy” or “Why don’t you ask my sister?” Then the parent gets really frustrated and raises their voice some more or doles out a punishment or threat, “If you don’t…then you can’t have…”. Or exasperation can be expressed as sarcasm like “This isn’t a hotel you know”, which can feel shaming and causes the child tune out even more. Sound familiar? Parent and child are now caught in a power struggle where nobody wins.
You might also like to read Genevieve’s article Dissipating Power Struggles
What does work? Generally if a child resists engaging with their parent’s request, it’s a cue to reconnect. It can help to take a step back from the situation. Slow down. Take a deep breath, get centred, then aim to connect before repeating your request. It isn’t time to force the issue or keep repeating the information that’s already been given, it’s time to reset and come back to the relationship. Are you fixating on making your child do what needs to be done rather than helping them do what needs to be done? Is your stress reflected in your tone of voice? Can you bring in a little self-empathy, reflecting to yourself: “All this pressure is too much, I feel really stretched, what do I need right now to de-stress a little?” Does your child need you to listen to what’s important for them in this moment? Perhaps asking, “Hey buddy, I can see you’re finding it hard to pick up your toys, maybe we could do it together and sing our song at the same time.” Do they need some connecting hugs, or could you put on that silly voice or exaggerated facials that they so love to bring in some giggles and dissipate some of that tension?
Instead of repeating, nagging, criticizing or raising your voice, seek eye contact, be warm, even affectionate, aim to be inviting. Invite them to repeat your request or question to seek further engagement and clarity. If resistant, enquire into what they’re feeling, and what would make it easier; “Hey love, you seem really frustrated about me mentioning your homework, are you feeling stressed?”
A gentle touch or a little humour and fun lets the child know that their parent is being patient and kind. This tends to disarm much of their defensiveness and hence resistance and it also brings the enjoyment of connection, and more energy and motivation to cooperate back into the situation. It’s not necessary to do this every time, but when you do have the extra time, showing genuine interest in their world, whatever they’re currently engaged with, before explaining what needs to be achieved or rectified and then calmly explaining what needs to happen generally fosters a more genuine cooperation and consideration of each other.
Instead of “just do it because I said so”, calmly giving a reason for our request while also showing care of their feelings can help our child engage their will and find the energy for the task: “I know you’re tired my boy and want to relax. The reason I asked if you’d be willing to set the table now is because the food’s nearly ready and I’m keen for us to all sit and eat while the food is hot.” Sometimes problem solving together helps children take more ownership: “Hmm this is tricky, you don’t want to get dressed, yet kindy starts soon, what’s the solution I wonder?”
Your child doesn’t have a sense of timing as we adults do, we need to keep encouraging them to move forward and reminding them that there’s only so much we can fit in to any time frame. Visual checklists can really help children to keep anchoring back to what needs to be achieved. Checklists differ from reward charts in that they’re not based on evaluating progress and hence afford the child more ownership of their tasks.
Requests are more inviting than demands
“I believe it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner.” – Marshall Rosenberg.
Demands invite a child to either submit or rebel, but don’t leave much room for initiative. Demands can feel humiliating for children (just as they do for most adults). Demands cause children to feel overly pressurized and can lead to resentments. Demands can cause a child to feel coerced and controlled. When a child complies with a demand, they tend to just feel like they’ve done what they were told and experience a temporary relief from the pressure at best. Demands lead to parent and child missing out on the natural joy of willing cooperation and mutual satisfaction of a job well done. Demands generally cause children to lose their natural desire to cooperate and contribute.
Requests on the other hand are more inviting and attractive and help foster a healthy team spirit. When the child cooperates with a request, they tend to enjoy and feel proud of their achievements. Requests give a child more choice, hence more ownership and allow the child to operate from their free will and maintain their sense of autonomy and dignity.
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