Two-year-old Nick was deeply engrossed rolling his new cars along his race track when his dad called him to the table for supper. Once seated, he played with his food and kicked his feet, all the while glancing over at the abandoned race track.
His parents, deeply concerned about his nutrition, kept encouraging him to eat something. “Just two bites of your chicken,” implored his mom to no avail. Nick was not having the chicken, nor anything else on his plate.
The same resistance occurs when a toilet training child is pulled away from play for his hourly run to the bathroom. It occurs when our fourth-grader returns home from school and we hit her with the mess she left in the bathroom that morning. And it also occurs when we want our teen’s attention when she’s on the phone with her boyfriend.
Dedicated parents care so much about their children that we feel real urgency about addressing our concerns with them. But if we want to encourage our children, it may be helpful to watch for times when they’re most available.
When a toddler’s playing and we know that supper or potty time is coming up, we may offer to wait a few minutes to engage the child’s sense of autonomy and shared decision making. A child who feels forced to leave play abruptly is a child who’s likely to resist.
And when we need to have a tough discussion with an older offspring, we may postpone a few minutes and tell them we need to talk, exploring what would be a good time for that discussion. We can watch our kids to understand when they might be most available for the task or discussion we’d like to pursue. After all, considering their perspective will contribute to our success anyway.
Forcing toddlers to eat or go potty when they’re not ready is something rarely undertaken well. Confronting older children in difficult discussions when they’re not ready is as likely to fail.
It’s true that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s also true that if you watch for signs of thirst and present the horse with fresh water at that moment, he probably will.