Q: What suggestions do you have for disciplining a 7-year-old girl who argues with every single thing her parents say? We don't try to reason with her and we frequently say "Because I said so" but she seems absolutely incapable of simply doing what we tell her to do. This is driving us to the brink of insanity! Thank you for any suggestions.
A: I don’t have suggestions. I have a solution. But first, children argue because parents explain. This is slightly different from trying to reason with a child, so bear with me.
Today’s parents — and of course I speak generally — feel some need to be egalitarian with their children. One unconscious symptom of this is the habit many parents have of stooping down to child-level when they give instructions. The position suggests that parent and child are peers. It also looks as if the parent is pleading with the child as opposed to speaking authoritatively. Why do parents do this? Because parenting “experts” have said that is the right and proper position from which to address children. I say it’s nothing short of stupid. To properly claim your natural authority over your child, you must look and act the part. Stooping doesn’t get it.
A second symptom is the tendency of today’s parents to give passive instructions along with explanations, as in (after stooping and grabbing one’s knees), “Honey, it would really be helpful if you would stop what you’re doing and pick these toys up for Mommy so I can vacuum this room.” In this example, the instruction isn’t an instruction at all. It’s a suggestion.
Furthermore, the explanation invites push-back, also known as argument. The child shouts, “I was here first and why can’t you vacuum later and you always want me to move my stuff!” And the mother makes another attempt to be nice and the child pushes back again and she is suddenly, as you so vividly put it, “on the brink of insanity.” Giving explanations is another example of stupid advice from parenting “experts.”
Train yourself to give instructions (a) from an upright, authoritative position and (b) without explanations, as in, “I want you to pick up these toys and move them to another room.” When the child whines, “But why?” answer with “Because I said so.” Not “frequently,” but every single time. Calmly, mind you, as if you’re answering “What’s the weather like outside?” And then turn and walk away. Pull the plug on the power struggle.
As for your daughter’s arguing, she’s going to need a consequence to help her focus on and remember the new way of doing things. Tell her that a parenting expert told you that arguing means she’s too tired to remember her manners, and so every time she argues during the day, she has to go to bed thirty minutes earlier that evening. Enforce this dispassionately and within a couple of weeks, you should be further back from the brink of insanity than you have been in several years.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions at www.parentguru.com.