You’re having dinner with your family and your child is poking and moving the food around on her plate. She complains, “This stuff looks gross. What is this green stuff? I don’t like green stuff.” All the while never eating a bite. If you’re like most parents, you launch into a dissertation on how tasty the “stuff” is, how good it is for you and “You should try it. It’s delicious and you’ll like it!” Ultimately, your dinner turns into a battle of wills where you end up screaming, “You will sit there until you eat something on that plate!” or, with much pleading, cajoling, and bargaining to manipulate your child into trying some of her dinner (only to prepare her a snack later because she only ate the minimum number of bites to remove herself from the table).
Sound familiar? Why is it so hard to get our children to eat their dinner? For that matter, why is it so hard to get them out of bed on time in the morning, to brush their teeth consistently, or take out the trash? Who knew parenting would be such a battle of wills? I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the struggle is real, my friends.
In an effort to help with those daily struggles, I offer a glimpse into the world of Reality Discipline. Reality Discipline is a model of parenting introduced by Dr. Kevin Leman, a developmental psychologist, whereby parents allow the consequences of their child’s behavior to become the teacher.
Dr. Leman first outlines the societal trend of parents shifting over to making life as easy as possible for children; meaning that parents today often seem to focus on creating happy children, not responsible children. Of course we don’t want our children to be unhappy, but as we all know, life is hard! There are going to be times when they are not happy. We, as parents, need to concentrate on preparing our children to navigate the rough waters of life on their own rather than just removing the turbulence for them. Through Reality Discipline, Dr. Leman shares with us that it’s not our job as parents to make our children’s lives easier. It is our job to teach them how to be responsible for themselves. In other words, a parent’s job is to put themselves out of a job. We can do this by helping children to learn to how to make responsible choices for themselves that will allow them to feel competent, confident, and accomplished, as well as bringing them up to be accountable and productive adult members of society.
Makes sense, right? But how? Well, in using Reality Discipline, Dr. Leman dictates that once in a while, we just have to pull the rug out from under our little power monsters and let them tumble! For example, using reality discipline in the dinner scenario outlined earlier: as the parent, we would simply explain to our child that she is not required to eat the dinner before her if she chooses not to. However, if she makes the choice to forego her dinner there will be nothing further to eat until breakfast. If she chooses to eat 50% of her dinner, then snack requests after dinner will be granted. Of course not threatening the child or using an ominous tone, but remaining cool as a cucumber and calmly outlining the choice that is before her. (After all, our children are not an extension of us, they have their own free will. If they choose not to eat, we cannot force them. But keep in mind that no child ever voluntarily starved to death.) And then simply allow the child to choose. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Whoa! Of course my child is going to choose to not eat her healthy dinner and take off for more fun elsewhere in the house!” But bear with me here…. Eventually, after dinner, your child is going to get hungry and come to you for something to eat. That is where we simply let reality become the teacher. We remind her that since she chose not to try any of her dinner, there will be nothing more for her to eat until breakfast. Then calmly, and with understanding, stick to your guns. Of course this will not make her happy. Of course she will be hungry and upset. However, it will make her more responsible and more respectful of her choices the following meal. Additionally, you do not take an ominous, authoritarian tone. You empathize with your child and let her know you understand that she is hungry and that it will be hard to sleep on an empty stomach, but also you know she will make a better choice for herself the next time. You don’t potentially damage her self-esteem by yelling and screaming and demanding she do as you would like, and you don’t establish unclear boundaries by letting her off the hook. You simply let reality be the teacher by stating, “Since you chose not to try your dinner, you chose to go without anything further until breakfast.”
It seems harsh to let your child suffer the consequences, but if you remind yourself that these daily situations are just a battle of wits and wills and you don’t back down, you and your child will win. From that point forward, when you lay out choices for your children in such a way that the consequences of either option is clearly pointed out for them up front, they will remember that they need to be responsible for their choice or they alone will suffer the appropriate consequences. Full stop. Mom and Dad won’t be manipulated and the consequences will swiftly and surely follow their choices. Every. Single. Time. More specifically, in practicing these responsible choices at home, your child will have made the connection that the choice he/she makes now effects the circumstances he/she will be experiencing later. He/she will have learned this through the natural course of life in the real world, not because Mom and Dad say it must be so. With Reality Discipline, your children have skin in the game from the start. Giving your child the freedom to choose for themselves in a structured environment allows them to make poor choices at home where he/she can be supported, instead of the harsh environment of the big, wide world where Mom and Dad aren’t always there to run interference. Effectively, Reality Discipline puts the child in control of their experiences. Let’s face it; we can all push our children into behaving the way we would like when we are around. The true measure of their learning is how our children behave when we are NOT around. Reality Discipline helps the child to learn real world consequences and the power they have over their own experiences; thereby providing them the insight that their choices dictate their experiences.
Plus, how nice would it be to have your child concerned about how much they’re eating at dinner, whether or not they’re up in time to meet the school bus, or whether the trash has been put out in time to be picked up for the week instead of Mom and Dad bearing the worry load, constantly reminding and pleading for action? If parents are able to drop the bomb of “you’re free not to do it if you don’t want to, but….”and hold their ground, one or two difficult lessons lets the child see that Mom and Dad mean business - they will not be moved once the choices are laid out. When kids are concerned with maintaining access to their snacks after dinner, walking to school if they miss the bus, or paying their brother or sister out of their allowance for taking out the trash each week, they suddenly become responsible members of the family and drama is greatly reduced in the household. It can be done! Don’t forget though, it’s crucial to remain calm and understanding, but firm. We don’t want to be the enemy looking to snap out the old “I told you that you shouldn’t have done that!” line and make our kids feel devalued. We’re on their side! One of the great benefits of this parenting approach is that it allows us to maintain a stable structure of how the world works while still being understanding of how hard that can be sometimes. We don’t have to be the all-powerful Oz dictating orders one minute, and then the maid and life organizer for our children the next. We can just say, “Hey, you might want to think about this before you choose, but the choice is yours.” And follow that up after the fact with “Nice job! I knew you would choose wisely.” Or “Gosh, this is a tough lesson. But you’re a really smart kid. I know next time you’ll choose differently.”
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