My oldest son is an excellent negotiator. Ever since he learned his first word, he’s been arguing with me about bedtime and watching extra TV shows and how many chocolate chip cookies he can eat.
What I learned is that, more than another episode of Blue’s Clues or getting that seventh cookie, what was most important to him was winning.
As adults, we can often romanticize childhood. We forget, though, how little power we had. It must be frustrating to have your plans made for you, your chores outlined, your meals predetermined—especially for a competent, slightly contrary child such as my son.
So, instead of squelching his need to take control over his choices, I let him win—not always, of course (I absolutely put my foot down at cookie number eight), but often enough that he began to develop a strong sense of self and excellent negotiating skills. Now that he’s almost 12, I give him even more power over his world. He’s old enough and smart enough to understand that poor choices often have natural consequences built into them. As time goes by, I find myself doing less punishments and more (not so cleverly concealed) smirking.
Here are eight ways I let my son “win” this week:
1. I didn’t make him eat breakfast. This is an ongoing battle with him. I never have food he likes, he has no time, he isn’t hungry, and the list goes on and on. Usually, I stand my ground and force him to eat something. This week, I just shrugged my shoulders. He came home from school miserable and hungry. The next day he made himself cereal without a word.
2. I didn’t make him wear a jacket or carry an umbrella even though it was pouring out. He got soaked. I didn’t laugh (much).
3. I let him play computer games after school before doing his homework. He played for hours, lost track of time, and ended up staying up much too late finishing his schoolwork. The next day he did his homework immediately after school. My head hurt from all the “I told you so”s banging around in there.
4. I let him spend his own $40 to buy that cheapass remote-control helicopter he wanted to buy even though we’d both read the terrible reviews. It fell apart in an hour. My heart broke right along with his, but I resisted the urge to give him back his money.
5. I didn’t make him clean his room. He lost one library book, two of his favorite pairs of pants, and $3. When he found the library books, he had to use the $3—which he finally found in his lost pants—to pay the late fees.
6. I didn’t make him do his chores of taking out the garbage and doing the dishes. I didn’t do them either. For dinner that night, he ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on napkins next to a very smelly, overflowing garbage. I enjoyed my takeout sushi with a subdued grin.
7. I let him hang on the dog gate that I’ve told him a million times not to hang on because it will break. It broke. The dog came upstairs and chewed up five of his favorite baseball cards. I had to bite my lip to keep from lecturing him.
8. I didn’t force him to give me a hug in front of his friends at the bus stop on the first day of school. I wasn’t smirking after that one. In fact, I had to wipe away a few tears. But, then he waved at me from the “cool section” in the back of the bus, and my heart did a triumphant little dance.
The truth is, our kids won’t be with us forever. Raising them to be obedient may make those years at home easier on us, but teaching them the natural consequences of choices will help them throughout their entire lives. I admit there are still many times when I lay down the law. (That eighth cookie will never be his. Never!) But, I try, whenever possible, to let him win—even when I know that his win will ultimately lead to a loss.