“Colin Powell and I are totally on the same page about conflict.”
“Go to the end of the fight first.”
I say that a lot to the parents I counsel.
“Figure out what you will do after your child has worn you down,” I explain. “If you’re just going to give in anyway, don’t encourage an argument about it.”
It’s so easy to be all hardline at the beginning of a fight with your kid. Anyone can learn to say no to their child. The trick is endurance. Twenty minutes of, “Why not????” And “But why not????” and “But WHY NOT????” And then try not to cave.
Go ahead, hold your ground. I’ll wait here and watch. I’ve got snacks and wine.
One of my own kids – in his early 30’s – said to me a few months ago, “Your parenting style is right out of Colin Powell’s Doctrine of War. You should read it.”
I was immediately insulted. How dare he compare me to a military doctrine! I am a card-carrying, poncho-wearing, granola-making, former commune-dwelling, UC Santa Cruz educated, incense-burning, guitar-playing, protest-marching, tofu-eating, orphan elephant-adopting, make-my-own-facial-scrub-from-rosemary-and-hemp using, seven-dollar-a-dozen-pasture-raised-eggs buying, subvert the dominant paradigm pin wearing, Earth Day celebrating, only-shave-my-underarms-in-the-summer bona fide hippie. Colin Powell????? I am like Colin Powell?
“Don’t get into a fight they are ultimately going to win.”
And then I Googled the doctrine.
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
Check out #5, in particular. “Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?”
Oh my. My son was right. Colin Powell and I are totally on the same page about conflict. We might have different verbiage. He, being a soldier and I, being a middle-aged, Jewish mother; he, being articulate and appropriate and me, well, you know my reputation. I carry a different sort of bomb. The “F” one.
But the strategies.
I say, go to the end of the fight first; Colin says you need an exit strategy. It’s the same idea. Do not get yourself into a conflict that you cannot win. Do not paint yourself into a corner where all you can do is argue until one of you falls asleep, crying.
Mr. Powell’s conflicts were, admittedly, a bit more dire than yours. But a few hours of arguing with a five year old, it kinda feels like the Middle East, amirite?
Let’s say your child asks if s/he can go to a friend’s house. You say, “Not today, darling child. You have homework, and you said that you were going to rake the leaves yesterday, and you still haven’t done that, and the last time you went to a friend’s house, you were really rude to me when I came to pick you up.”
I will spare us both the verbatim back-and-forth that ensues. The highlights of the dialogue are, “Plllleeeeeeaaaaaase? I promise I will rake the leaves as soon as I get home,” and “I hate you.” (Both quotes are from your child, even though you may be thinking one of them yourself).
Imagine forty-five minutes of this.
Imagine that with each exchange, your child grows more energetic and adamant. You grow a migraine and about a billion points in your blood pressure. Finally, you can’t stand it. You say, “FINE!!!!!” (If you are me, you add A Very Bad Word before “fine”). You say, “You know what? Just go to your friend’s house. I can’t take it anymore!” And you feel a moment of relief because you don’t have to listen to your kid argue and whine anymore.
But later, when your child is happily playing at the friend’s house, you start to feel angry. You see the unraked leaves. You see the backpack with the homework spilling out of it. By the time your child comes home – happy! – you can hardly bring yourself to say hi, and the rest of the afternoon and evening you are out of sorts and resentful.
Your spouse comes home and says innocently, “Huh. I thought the kid was going to rake the leaves…”
And that’s when your head explodes.
Is there another way? Colin and I say yes.
The very first time your child asks if s/he can go to a friend’s house, ask yourself:
What kind of a day am I having?
Am I up to dealing with an angry kid all afternoon?
What is the teachable moment of highest priority in this argument?
What will be the consequences of each of my answers?
Is this action supported by the American people, and do we have broad international support?
HAH. That last one is, of course, lifted directly from the war doctrine, but it might make you laugh during a tense moment with your kid if you think about it. Plus, I interpret that one as: Do you have support at home (your spouse) and abroad (in-laws, teachers, parents) for what you want to do?
If you are having a normal, shitty day, I suggest you try this strategy. It saves your brain cells because you don’t have to keep wondering, “Should I just give in?” during the argument. You just have to stick to your initial declaration, and remind yourself that everyone has the right to feel pissed off when they don’t get what they want, as your child stages an all-day protest march against you. You can just let it be. Let it be a hard day. Because you and your kid will have had a good, clean fight. And soon, your child will learn that there is no reason to argue once you’ve said no because you aren’t going to change your mind. And Life will be a tad more worth living.
If it’s a particularly bad day; however, say, you have the flu, and you had a huge fight with someone you care about, and your pants are too tight because Halloween candy, and the dog pooped on the rug, and you are out of coffee – if you know you are not up to dealing with an angry kid, then don’t argue. Don’t get into a fight they are ultimately going to win.
Instead, say, “Yes, you can go to your friend’s house for two hours. When you come back, it’s homework time. Leaves need to be raked before the weekend.”
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “But but but but, that’s letting your kid get away with it!”
And you are right. Which is why I say to give in ONLY if you are having a really horrible day and spending the afternoon with your child is going to result in one of you getting drunk.
Or, give in when your child has made a really good argument for the case. For instance, you tell your kid to pick up the Leggo’s NOW! S/he says, “But I need to take a picture of it so I can remember what it looks like so I can show it to myself if I forget. And I can’t take a picture of it until I finish the last part!”
Hmm. Good point.
And even though you were poised to repeat, “I said NOW” because those Leggos have been on the living room floor for three days, you say, “You make a good point. Can you finish the last part before dinner? Because that’s when we have to clean them up.”
And “yes” becomes the result of clear thought, communication and compromise.
Go to the end of the fight first in your head.
You have the support of the American people.