What If it Doesn’t Work?

IMG_1306OK, you’ve read about transforming No into Yes, and it makes sense, but what about when it doesn’t work? Or if it only works sometimes?

What I find is that when I try to connect with a child but it doesn’t work, it’s often because the child is longing for a different method of connecting: for example, I’m trying to use humor, but that child is really are longing for appreciation, or I try to use appreciation, but she’s really longing for physical fun. So instead of trying once and giving up, try a couple different ways in a row to see if you can find that sweet spot. As you practice these ideas and techniques a bit with your child, you’ll discover what works at different times of day, when they’re in different moods, when you’re in different moods, etc.

So what might that look like? Here’s an example: Isaiah comes in from the yard, takes off his jacket and drops in on the floor, then starts to head to the play area. “Isaiah, looks like you forgot something,” I might start out. If I don’t get the speedy compliance that I’m hoping for, I might then use humor, showing pretend horror that it’s on the floor, really hamming it up. Often this is enough, but let’s say that he giggles but doesn’t move to pick it up. At that point I’d probably move into physical fun. Maybe I’ll lift him up and tell him in a fun way to grab the jacket as I lower his head toward the floor like a crane. If I don’t have enough energy for that, I might pick up the jacket and throw it playfully over his head, then pretend like I can’t see him: “Where’d Isaiah go? I thought he was here…” If he throws it off onto the floor, I’l briefly lose my fun face: “No thanks, we’re hanging that up now. Try again.” Then I’ll jump back into the game as he goes along.

Sometimes, however, nothing works. If I’ve tried all of those different ways and he still throws his jacket angrily down and refuses to pick it up, it’s time to change gears and figure out what’s going on. Why is it hard for him to feel connected right now? To find out, I might stop and kneel down near him and say (with real interest instead of disapproval), “Hey, what’s going on? You don’t want to pick up your coat?” Then I’ll listen to whatever he has to tell me. This kind of attention is a type of love and appreciation (one of the five ways of connecting)–I’m appreciating his experience. Depending on what he says when I ask, I’ll decide what to do. I might offer for us to pick the jacket up together, or I might suggest that he’ll be ready to do it after I give him a big hug, or if I can see that he’s totally fried, I might even say, “I can tell that you’re not ready to do it now. Why don’t I do it for you, this time.”

But wait! I hear you say. Aren’t you just caving in?  The answer is, it depends.  If it feels like caving, then it’s probably caving.  But offering to do it for him because I understand that he’s feeling fried is much different from “giving in.” It comes from a place of connection, and my doing it is a gift. I might re-inforce that this is a one-off gift by mentioning casually as I do it, “I bet next time you’ll be able to do it on your own again.”

When to Give In

Let’s talk about this some more.  What happens when we pull out all of our tricks, and the answer is still No.  It seems that at that point, there are several things we can do.

1) We can drop it, and let them not do what they’re not wanting to do.

2) We can force them to do it

3) We can explain why it’s important, and try and convince them to change their minds.

This third one is SO attractive; it’s what most parenting books and books on communication suggest; it’s the approved technique in our culture. But for toddlers and most preschoolers, I actually think that this is the worst choice of the three.


Toddlers act from emotion, not from reason. While giving convincing reasons may change the mind of a 17 year old, or sometimes a 9 year old, it doesn’t work for toddlers, because they’re not basing their decisions on reasons in the first place. They don’t WANT to, and the wanting/not wanting is not going to change because we explain that it’s cold outside, or that they’ll get a sunburn without sunscreen, or whatever it is.

(Note: I have had some parents who tell me that explaining works for them; however, I don’t think that the explaining works because it somehow convinces the toddler; instead I think that it works because when that parent puts on his or her “explaining voice,” kids know they’re serious and that they’re not going to change their mind.)

Instead, when we explain and explain, and work to convince the child that they should do what we want them to, we develop kids who become very good at explaining to US why WE should do what THEY want us to do. Getting into a discussion, with each person trying to convince the other that they’re right, seems like it does little except give children practice at saying “No.” Well, it also does do one more thing, which is that it extends the negative feelings, drawing out the disconnection much longer than if the adult simply acknowledged that the child didn’t want to but the thing still needed to happen, and then the child could be disappointed and move on, reestablishing connection over something else.  If we can’t move on until the child gives up their feelings on the issue, it’s almost like we’re being even more demanding: not only do they have to do what we want, but they can’t even feel the way they want about it, either.

Secondly, it sends the message “you should only have to do things that you feel like doing” to your kids, and that’s not really the message that you want to teach them! Sometimes we all have to do things even though we don’t want to; this is a part of learning self-regulation. (I hear you saying: but isn’t that the opposite of trying to make things fun, like you talked about earlier? My answer is: if you CAN make it so that the child WANTS to do it, yes!  That is the much better option!  But if you can’t figure out how to get them to want to, then that shouldn’t stop the process; the process of doing whatever it is should go on.)

Instead, I become authoritative. If a child says No, then I do my best to re-establish connection and fun, but if that No doesn’t melt away, then the thing still needs to happen. So I move on to ‘helping them do it.’ “Oh, it looks like you need some help,” I’ll say, and I move into action. I’m not angry, and it’s not a punishment; I try to make it connecting if I can, but if it’s clear that the child is not able to connect, then I simply help them do it in a matter-of-fact way. This doesn’t mean that I don’t explain why we need to do the thing we’re doing; I do that, but I don’t expect that it will change the child’s feelings on the issue. We do it, and we move on, and we reconnect a bit later.

Not being able to do as they want is often VERY disappointing for children; this is part of why it’s so important to move into the ‘helping’ phase before I’m angry, so that I can be as compassionate as possible about how much of a bummer it is to have to do something you don’t want to. Then the next time that particular thing needs to happen, if I get a No again, I will again do my best to make it fun or funny or weave in appreciation. But if that No is still there, I will remind them: “Remember last time, when we had to do it the not-fun way? We can do it the fun way, or the not-fun way, but it must be done. Which will you choose?” The first few times, the disappointment is often too great and it needs to happen the not-fun way, but I am matter-of-fact and compassionate, and I do my best to help the child move through disappointment and out the other side. But pretty soon the child realizes that when I say it’s time, it’s time, and they will often move on to choose the fun way. Oftentimes they’ll decide in the middle, when they realize that their No isn’t changing things; again, moving on before I’m angry lets me recognize that child’s bid for connection, and respond in kind. I don’t want to entrench that interaction as a negative one; I’m happy to turn it into a game, to make it fun or funny, to sing a little song whenever the child is ready, and I will try new ways of connecting as often as I can. I will always choose connection over disconnection.

So, it is through this combination of making things fun/connecting, and then matter-of-factly ‘helping’ them when I can’t figure out how to connect in that moment, that I end up with kids who do what I ask the vast majority of the time.

Does this mean that I never take their desires and opinions into account? Of course not. After a disappointment is over, depending on the age of the child we might talk about how we could do things differently the next time. I also brainstorm on ways to make the activity more connecting the following time, so that the No can actually melt away; other times I’ll think about perhaps doing the activity at another time of day, or stopping it altogether for awhile. But mostly those are all things for the following time, not for this time.

What about that first option, of simply letting the child off the hook? Do I ever use that? In fact, I do sometimes. Sometimes I get into the thick of things and realize that the child is really unable to do what I’ve asked: they’re not ready developmentally. They’re too tired/hungry/over-stimulated. They need help and I can’t help them because I have my hands full, another child needs my attention, or I’m simply too worn out. Then I will change my mind: “Oh, I didn’t realize that would be too hard for you. You can just put it down and I’ll deal with it later.” Or, “Wow, I didn’t realize how important this was for you. I’ve changed my mind; you don’t have to do it this time.” But I work to make those a real exception, rather than the norm.

In general, I can tell where I’m falling down on the job by how the child is responding when I ask them to do something and they don’t want to do it. If they try to convince me why they shouldn’t have to do it, that tells me that I’m explaining and convincing too much. If they’re throwing tantrums and letting their emotions get big and out of control, that tells me that I’m changing my mind too much when they have negative feelings. When we’re experiencing LOTS of episodes of me having to ‘help’ them and neither of us enjoying it, then I’m forgetting to make things fun/connecting/enjoyable. But when I ask a child to do something and they don’t want to, then I say, “It looks like you need some help” and the child either jumps up to do what I’ve asked, or is happy to do it when I add a song or a game or a smile, then I know that we’re striking a good balance.

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