My childhood and teenage years were shaped quite a bit by the fact that my dad was a lawyer and then a judge. Building and presenting a logical and convincing argument was a favorite family pastime. We engaged in (usually) friendly debate the way other families play Scrabble. As my father’s child, I learned the art of pursuing an argument. As a parent and a teacher, I have learned the art of ending one.
Often times, when we find ourselves engaged in an argument with children, the logic is sometimes lacking. But that doesn’t matter much to the child. It all makes perfect sense to him. He still wants a sucker for breakfast in spite of the fact that you already told him he needs to choose from one of the healthy options. She wants to play at her friend’s house NOW, even though you’ve explained that her playdate is tomorrow. Often, we get passionate arguments when children realize the consequences of their choices and are trying to escape. Susan begs for you to pick up the puzzle pieces, even though she is the one who threw them. When a discussion with a child reaches the point that you find that logic isn’t going to bring you eye-to-eye and that you’re simply going around in circles, it’s time to disengage.
Disengaging means you, as the adult, has to take the high road and stop feeding the flames so that the fire of argument can go out rather than flare into an all-consuming inferno. Monitoring your attitude and voice, very kindly and softly explain just one last time what the situation is, so that the child knows he has been heard. Then follow it up with a terminal statement.
Here’s how that would sound: “John, I understand that you want to watch the show. But you chose to play with your Legos for twenty more minutes instead. That time is gone and now it’s time for bed. I love you too much to argue about this anymore.” “Sasha, I understand that you want a sucker, but I don’t even have any. So I’m not going to argue about it anymore.” “Tyler, I know you want to paint now, but your name is right here on the sign up list. So as soon as Ellen is done it will be your turn. Arguing with me won’t change where your name is on the list, so we’re not going to talk about it anymore.”
I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring your tone and temper as you make these statements. The point of disengaging is to diffuse the situation. If you say all the right words, but with all the wrong non-verbal cues, you’ve just upped the tension. Say it calmly, give a little hug, and then stick to it. You can’t disengage and then jump back into the argument when the child inevitably tries one last shot. You can ignore, change the subject (“Now who wants to read this hilarious story?”), or calmly repeat your terminal statement (“I love you too much to argue about this.” or “We’re not going to talk about this anymore.”) like a broken record.
Sometimes a child will turn from an argument to a tantrum when she sees that you have decided to disengage. Treat that as a new situation. (Check out my Tools for Tantrums and see if that helps.) Give the child space and help her to get control. Then offer some choices of where to go from here. (“Do you want to play with some playdough now, or go play outside?” “Do you want to pick up those puzzle pieces now or in five minutes?”) Trying to reason with them while they are out of control, going back to the argument, or simply caving aren’t options.
You’ll find that as you are consistent in disengaging, it will become more effective in the future. This practice lets the child know that we each own our own behavior. Just as he gets to make his choices, you, as the adult, make yours. When you choose not to argue, you are modeling positive behavior. So even if you are a passionate arguer like I am, with careful application, you’ll find that you can “win” more arguments, simply by ending them.
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Top photo by davidlat.