We knew we were in trouble when our 3 1/2-year-old son Matt would sit at the table for up to 2 hours, refusing to finish his dinner. We’d fly the airplane into the hangar, tell him “3 more bites”, race with Daddy, take a bite ourselves, display the scrumptious dessert reward – nothing would work. That kid would sit there refusing to to eat until we gave up and sent him to bed.
It was apparent that he had inherited his mother’s obstinacy and his father’s stubbornness. We called him “strong-willed” or “just plain difficult,” and he would have been a terror as a teenager had I not stumbled upon what I call the “Walk-Away” policy.
Accompanying his need for control was Matt’s strong desire to do what was right. We learned that if we laid out our expectations and then walked away, he would feel the pressure of those expectations and eventually do what he was supposed to, albeit in his own time. However, if we stood over him and insisted he do it now, on our time, he would accept whatever consequence he had to–but he would not do what was asked.
When you have teenagers in the house, you expect them to do their chores, get their homework done, and clean up after themselves. When you say, “Please do those dishes now,” sometimes it’ll work like a charm. Sometimes it’ll cause an argument: “Why do I have to do everything around here?” “It’s not my turn; I did them last time!” “I can’t–I have too much homework.”
Instead of getting sucked into an argument designed to distract you, or being manipulated into giving an ultimatum (which may backfire on you), state your expectation but leave room for some control: “Please get started on your homework before 7:30.” Then walk away and resist the urge to nag.
This won’t work with all personalities. For some kids, when you walk away they’ll forget what you just said, or maybe choose to ignore you. But if you have an”I’ll-do-it-because-I-want-to-not-because-you-told-me-to” teen, it’s a survival technique. It can keep you from getting sucked into a power struggle where you have to up the consequences (and then follow through with them). More importantly, it keeps your relationship with your teen on a positive footing instead of it deteriorating into resentment and hostility.
Matt is grown and out on his own now. His stubbornness and desire to do what’s right have helped him to become a young man of integrity and perseverance. Best of all, we have a great relationship–his favorite line, spoken with a shrug and a grin: “What can I say? You know how I am!”