|Can you imagine threatening your
partner or good friend by counting "One... two" if he or
she did not do what you wanted?
One of the big issues in schools today is "bullying."
Parents and teachers struggle daily with how to stop this
behavior. Without realizing it, adults teach bullying behavior to
children by modeling it when they use the threat of their physical
size or power to make children do things. When I hear a parent
counting "One... two" at a young child, I always wonder
what the child has been told will happen if the parent gets to
three. Is it the threat of a spanking, being yelled at, time out,
abandonment (I'm going without you) or the withdrawal of love and
approval? Whatever the threat may be, I rarely hear
"three." As intended, the threat of what will happen if
the parent gets to three usually compels the child to do whatever
it is the parent is telling the child to do. Parents use threats
to get children to cooperate because that was what adults so often
modeled when we were growing up. Most of us are familiar with the
phrase "or else." We did what we were told out of fear
even if we didn't know what the "or else" would be.
While counting may appear to be a magic form of discipline,
there is no magic in threats. Children know that adults are bigger
and more powerful than they are. They comply in self-defense. If
the only way we can get children to do what we ask is by
intimidating them with our greater physical size and power, how
will we get them to do as we ask when we are no longer bigger and
stronger? " Ask the parents of any teenager if counting still
works. Not only do threats no longer work, they've learned to use
the same means to make others do what they want.
Many parents see a child's uncooperative behavior as a
challenge to their authority. Once we understand that
uncooperative behavior is usually caused by a child's unmet need
or an adult's unrealistic expectation, we don't have to take the
behavior so personally. Parents and children often have different
needs. Sometimes our needs or schedules conflict with our
children's needs. Children who are deeply absorbed in play will
not want to interrupt their play to go with us to the bank or the
store before it closes. When a parent needs to do one thing and a
child needs to do something else there is a conflict of needs.
This conflict of needs turns into a power struggle when parents
use the power of fear instead of the power of love.
The bond or connection parents have with their children is
their most powerful parenting "tool." A strong bond is
created over time when parents lovingly and consistently meet a
child's early needs. Threats communicate, "what you think,
feel, want or need is not important." Threats undermine the
parent-child bond. When we learn to resolve our "conflicts of
needs" in ways that show children that their needs and
feelings matter, we strengthen the bond and avoid many power
struggles. If we want to teach children
to love instead of hate, we must learn to use conflict resolution
skills in our daily interactions with children. Just as children
learn bullying from what adults model, they can learn conflict
resolution and problem solving skills from what we model. When
children learn the skills from how we treat them at home they will
bring those skills to their relationships at school.
Very young children can learn conflict resolution if we model
it. An older sibling can be taught to find another toy to exchange
with their younger sibling instead of just snatching their toy
back. When two children want the same toy at the same time we can
help them "problem solve" a solution. When there is a
conflict of needs because the parent wants to do an errand and the
child just wants to stay home and play we can say "let's
problem solve to see if we can find a way for us both to get what
we need." Maybe the child could take the toy in the car or
perhaps the errand could wait until tomorrow. When the parent is
ready to leave the playground and the child wants to stay longer
we can suggest a compromise of five more minutes and doing
something fun when we get home. Often it's not that the child
doesn't want to leave as much as it is that she doesn't want the
fun to end. When we teach children that everyone's needs are
important by honoring their needs they learn to honor the needs of
There will be times that we won't have the time or the
resources to meet a child's need. There will be times that even
after honoring the child's need, the child is still unable to
cooperate. At those times it is important to communicate that
parents have needs too and even though it makes the child unhappy
we do have to go now and then allow the child to have his feeling
about having to leave. It is never OK to tell a young child that
you will leave without them. Threatening a child with abandonment
terrifies a child. When a child has a tantrum about leaving it may
not be about leaving the playground at all. Leaving may just be
the last straw that unleashes the day's accumulation of little
frustrations. The child may just need to cry to empty out the
stresses of the day. A child will be able to move forward much
more readily when we can say "I know you're sad and it's OK
to cry" than if we say "Stop that crying or I'll give
you something to cry about!" When the crying is done the
child will usually feel better and be more able to cooperate.
When children's needs are met and nothing is hurting them they
are usually delightful to be with. Whenever a child responds
negatively to a reasonable request we need to look for the
Once we know how our needs are in conflict we can try to
problem solve. I have learned to say, "When you behave that
way I know something is wrong, because we love each other and
people who love each other don't treat each other this way. Can
you tell me what you need or what's hurting you?"
If I can remember to stop and ask that one simple question it
changes the whole context of the conflict.
That question communicates, " I love you and what you feel
and need matters to me."
Sometimes there isn't a way for both people to get what they
need. But not getting what we need is much easier to bear if we
are treated in a way that allows us to keep our dignity. Counting
at a child communicates, "I am bigger and more powerful than
you and you 'd better do as I say or I'm going to (in some way)
hurt you." When a big kid says to a smaller one, "Do
what I say or I'm going to hurt you," we call it bullying.
When an adult communicates the same thing to a child by counting,
we call it discipline. When we treat children in ways that take
away their dignity we teach them how to take away other's dignity.
If we want kids to stop bullying, we have to stop bullying kids.
The power of fear is easy and quick but short-lived. The power of
love requires more work and takes longer but children never
outgrow its influence. Children count on us to teach them the way,
so let's stop counting at them.