An issue that I have discussed with friends and family many times in the last few years is whether, as parents, we should push our children to do things that we think will be beneficial for them.
Consider this scenario. I have a great plan for my son to learn to ride a bike. I just know that he will love it once he has got the hang of it. I am also really keen to get him out doing some healthy outdoor exercise. My son seems open to the idea, even excited. I go out and spend $300 dollars on a beautiful new bike for Christmas. I research the best way to teach a child to ride a bike. Off we go to the park and find a nice gentle grassy slope. My son gets on the bike while I hold it for him. I push it gently down the slope holding on at first. I let go and he starts rolling down the slope. He falls off and lands in the grass. After that he won’t get back on the bike again. He is adamant that he doesn’t want to learn to ride a bike any more. My plans are stalled and I am feeling really frustrated. How do I deal with this situation? What do I say to my child?
I could put pressure on him. I could lecture him on what he did wrong. I could tell him that he is being stubborn and silly or not trying hard enough. I could keep at him until he gets back on the bike and rides it.
I know from experience that pushing my child feels awful for me. It feels awful because I am trying to control my child. I feel frustrated and tight. I get angry at him for not trying again and not achieving what I wanted for him. I end up yelling at my son and he ends up in tears. I feel disappointed in him and in myself. I think it reflects badly on me if he can’t do this. In fact, at this point it is all about me. My sunny hopes that we could go riding together have been dashed. The joy has been completely sucked out of the activity.
Many of us have had experiences of being pushed into doing things as children. I have heard people say “I am so glad that my parents insisted that I go to dancing classes even though I didn’t want to. If they hadn’t I would never have discovered how much I love dancing.” Other people have had the opposite experience. They say “My parents forced me to learn the piano and I hated it. I was completely put off learning an instrument after that.” Do you have one of these stories? Do you find yourself pushing your child? How does it feel for you?
We want our children to have opportunities, to try new things, to learn new skills, to become more independent and to grow into competent, accomplished adults. What do we do when they resist our plans for them? What happens when they even resist following through on their own ideas? How many parents have paid up in advance for an activity that their child wants to try, only to find that the child either won’t go to the first lesson or has decided that they don’t like it on day one?
How to give a helpful nudge rather than a push
It doesn’t have to be a black or white choice between forcing my child to do something or giving up on what I want. There is room for gentle persuasion. There is also room to help a child overcome their hesitation and fears. I don’t say “You have to …..” or “You must…..”. Instead, I use what is known as nonviolent communication to give my child a nudge rather than a push.
I speak to them following this loose formula; I say what I am observing, feeling, wanting and requesting.
When I put these together I get a statement like this;
“When I see ………………….I feel………………..because I want/don’t want…………………….
Would you be willing to……………………….?”
Here are some examples of what I might say;
- “When you won’t have another try at riding your bike I feel really frustrated. I want you to learn this because I think that you will really love it. Will you please just give it one more go? I will hold the back of the bike until you feel safe for me to let go. If you go a bit faster and you will balance better.”
- “When you say that you don’t want to go to your swimming lesson I feel very upset and scared. I want to know that you could get yourself back to the edge if you fell in the pool. I want you to be safe in the water. Would you please get in the car and come now? I will stay with you when we get to the pool to make sure you feel OK with the teacher. OK?”
- “When you refuse to do your reading exercises I feel so frustrated. I think that these exercises will really help you with your learning. I know that you find it difficult but you will only get the benefit from them if you keep doing half an hour every day. I really want to see you get over this hurdle. Will you come and do your practice now?”
I am aware that my nudge might trigger some difficult feelings for my child. When children learn new things they often come to a point of frustration or meet some sort of hurdle that they need to get over. They might have fears about the activity in question that they need to express. I don’t want to be discouraged by my child’s initial reaction. I aim to listen to them as they express their fears without shaming them, threatening them or unnecessarily reassuring them. Letting them know that I understand their feelings can really help. If I can see the situation from their point of view I am in a better position to help them. I also think of ways to make things easier for them. I might offer to stay with them until they feel comfortable to part, or to actively help them with the activity if I can. Making a very specific request helps too. Asking them to try one class, or to practice for half an hour or fifteen minutes helps to make the challenge less overwhelming and more do-able for my child.
Ultimately, despite my frustration and the money spent I am prepared to accept my child’s “No.” This is the difference between making a request and making a demand. My aim is to make choices that increase the peace, joy and freedom in my life and that of my children. Making demands of my children would not do this.
Accepting their “No” doesn’t have to be forever. I can suggest the activity again when they are a bit older. Pressure to do something before a child is developmentally ready and capable can be extremely demoralizing for them. They can give up to protect themselves. It helps enormously if I can trust that children develop in a highly individual way. What one child can do easily at four might take another child until twelve to master.
I have also learned that there are always other options and opportunities to discover when my child says “No.” When one of my children flatly refused to go to formal swimming lessons I was initially frustrated and worried about how he would learn this important skill. When I resisted the urge to push we discovered a great opportunity to spend lots of fun times in the pool and surf together. He gradually became more confident in the water and taught himself to swim. All it took was some flotation devices, a few tips from me and lots of fun play. We had a great time and saved hundreds of dollars into the bargain.
What about the things you HAVE to learn?
Many people believe that “There are some things that you just have to learn, whether you like it or not.” This is seen as justification for all sorts of unpleasant coercion by parents. My response to people who insist on this will always be the question “Is this really true?” I often come across stories of people who have satisfying, happy, successful adult lives despite the fact that they did not learn one of those things that “you just have to learn.” Reading is an example. Having dyslexia has not held back Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver or Orlando Bloom, who have all gone public on their difficulties with learning to read. Jamie Oliver, the world’s richest chef and author of 20 books recently announced that he had just finished reading his first whole book at the age of 38. It was not true that he had to learn to read (or to read well). He had managed very well with limited reading skills for most of his life.
Of course, this does not mean that I do not want my children to learn to read, swim, ride bikes or whatever else I think they should be able to do. I am happy to support them, encourage them, provide them with resources and instruction, find expert help if it is needed and listen to them when they get frustrated. But I will not push or force them. I no longer believe that there are some things that you just have to learn, whether you like it or not, so why would I?
I now trust that it is never too late to learn something new. This is one of the reasons why pushing my child to learn something is so unnecessary. If my children wait until they are adults to learn to swim, read whole books or master an instrument, that is fine by me. Research on neuroplasticity has shot down the belief that there is a narrow window of opportunity or critical period for a child to learn certain skills. We can all pick up new skills at any age.
The key to learning anything is motivation. To be motivated from within is what brings the best learning and the most satisfaction. When a child makes their own choice to learn something and they enjoy what they are doing they will stick at it. They will deal with their frustrations and get over the hurdles. When they do they will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Watching my children take up opportunities and choose and reach their own goals is one of the great delights of my life. No pushing, just the occasional nudge.