How to Argue Less with Your Child

Claudia Stack

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Six years ago, I took my younger son to get a haircut. He was eleven at the time. As we sat in the waiting area, I encouraged him to look through the book with pictures of different styles. He told me about his ideas for how he wanted his hair to look. When the stylist called him back, I asked her to listen to him. Then I said to my son, “You’re a big guy now, so you should decide how you want your hair.”

The stylist responded with an outpouring of appreciation and relief. She said, “You cannot believe how many mothers come back, stand by the chair, and manage their kids’ haircuts--even when the kids are teenagers!”

Do you know what? It worked out fine. I cannot actually remember what look he chose that time, but it doesn’t matter. Hair is hair, and it grows. The important thing was, I turned the decision over to my son because it seemed an appropriate time to do so. I didn’t want to force him to walk around with a look he didn’t like, and I didn’t want to argue over something that was in a safe realm.

What I mean by “safe realm” is that certain decisions are within a space where, like a padded ball pit, it’s hard to get hurt. Not saying it’s impossible to cause real damage, but… it’s much less likely than in some other spaces. So within safe realms, I gave my sons free rein. In my opinion, clothing, hair, jewelry, and homework fall into those realms.

Yes, I am a teacher and I put homework in their control. Not whether they do it, mind you, but how. When they were in first and second grade I helped them organize their work and gave them the materials they needed. At third grade and beyond I stood back, unless they asked for help.

Are there areas where I guided their decisions, or insisted on my way? Sure, although less and less now that they are older. But picking your battles is a cornerstone of happy parenting. However, I didn’t always know this. I recall once when, before I had children, I foolishly made my toddler nephew very unhappy over something trivial.

Our extended family was heading out to dinner, and as we waited for an elevator, I noticed that my young nephew was holding a (clean) baby wipe. For some reason, he had pulled it out of the container and wanted to hold it.

Looking back, I can barely understand my frame of mind at that time, but I think I had some notion that it would appear strange or even dirty to the wait staff at the restaurant for him to be playing with a wipe. Now, with 20 years more life experience, I know that they wouldn’t have cared (or even noticed).

Asking my nephew to see the wipe, which he handed to me, I told him, “You don’t need this anymore,” and quickly threw it out. And… you can imagine the upset that followed. I had taken something harmless from him and gotten rid of it. It took a while for him to get over that, and the whole episode made a big impression on me. My sister, his mother, was gracious about it, but I recall that the message she conveyed was the same one I am writing about here: Pick your battles.

Obviously, if he had been playing with a dirty wipe, or something else gross, or something dangerous, it would have been a completely different story.

But I allowed my ego to drive my actions, in that I allowed my worry about a hypothetical reaction from a hypothetical person to determine how I interacted with my nephew at that moment.

That’s a dead giveaway, I have since learned, that I am on the wrong track. If I am speculating about someone’s opinion of my child, I am invested in my ego perceptions and not focused enough on my son’s feelings at the time. That is a recipe for disconnection, conflict, and unhappiness.

Is my judgment perfect? Certainly not. However, I know that when my sons were young, I was a lot happier when I let them make decisions in safe realms. Then we didn’t argue over trivial things, and they practiced making decisions. And making decisions, after all, is the essence of growing up.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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