What sort of adult are you raising? What are your goals as a parent? Almost every person I have ever asked this question of has a similar answer: for her to be happy, to find a place for herself in world. For him to be able to take care of himself and feel good about himself and be safe. Yes,sometimes, parents say “to do what I tell her to do.” Still, if ask about a parent’s goals as a parent and the answer is more abstract and long-term. One of the most important questions we face everyday as parents is how to help my child learn to make choices about behavior that are good for him or her.

We can start with ourselves. Everyday we decide what we are going to do. True, lots of those decisions are made without a lot of explicit thought. We take short cuts all the time. We practice habits, we grab for the short-term reward, we escape our responsibilities, we go to the most effective behaviors from our past experience. It turns out that kids are not any different.

We have a chance as parents, who are in control of a lot of resources, to set the world up in a way that gives children a chance to practice making choices and to build up their experience in making the world work for themselves. Hopefully, we can teach them through experience how much power they have to make things better for themselves.

You have things that are so valuable to your child. You have time, you have a little money, you have a car, TV and other media, stickers, pasta for art projects, soap bubbles, sidewalk chalk, toys, new sports equipment, books (used are fine), libraries — one family offered time to stay later in jammies and play with the couch cushions. You can use these wonderful things to motivate your children.

Most of the time, parents who try this for the first time — forget it, people who try this for the first time — give up. “It doesn’t work!”  I am sorry for being flip but it will not work if you do not do it over and over and over and over. If your child chooses not to take the reward then, that was the choice you offered. Live with it.

There are some guaranteed ways to fail besides giving up. Do not set up any expectations in your child that they have to give to get until they are 10 years old.  It is a little late and will make it ten times harder. Use punishments randomly because you are frustrated i.e., “That’s it, you are off TV for a week.!” Escalate punishments until you get your way. Give more commands than you have time, energy, or resources to reward or punish. If you haven’t got a consequence then you are merely asking. It is not a have to.

Ways of making it easier. Clearly communicate with your child. Tell them first why you are giving a direction and then, tell them what you want them to do and what you will do for them when they do it. Look for natural consequences but know your child. My kids’ step-dad once told them that they could go to the festival downtown when they had their shoes on but we would not go until the shoes were on. My introverted kids  said, “OK, we can stay home.” Oops, never did that again. Much more likely that they would have gotten ready, if he had said he’d give a nickel to whoever had her shoes on in two minutes.

This can look easy and be easy but it can also be really hard. There are things that are really important to us and not to our kids. We have to really get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes. We have to make a promise to ourselves not to give up. We have to be ready to tolerate, respect, and validate our child’s thoughts and feelings.

Kelly Champion, PhD