Children have an inbuilt survival mechanism that is as intrinsic to them as breathing. It rises up from the depths of their unconscious as a strong, life-depending impulse, exploding into their conscious mind as a single thought – “I want…” It’s often verbalized in exactly those words and when denied, is repeated, “But I want!” They are then perplexed when this seemingly plausible and most obvious demand is met with a firm refusal or a watered down alternative.
Why does this continually happen?
It's not the child being disrespectful, it’s the child being a child – uneducated in the ways of the world, seeking only to satisfy their basic human needs. A child is dependent upon adults for their continued existence so it is rational that they would make every attempt by any means possible to manipulate adults into fulfilling their needs and desires. It is how we survived as a species. Human offspring, unlike many other animals, are born completely helpless and dependent upon their parents in order to survive. A newborn foal will stand within moments of being born. A human baby requires 9-12 months to achieve the same goal. Thus, it comes naturally to children to demand what they need, as loud as it takes, to get your attention.
As an adult charged with their care, you the know the ways of the world. You understand the complexities of living together as a family, what is reasonable, what is necessary. And you instinctively know the lessons ahead for this child, which they are yet to learn. You don’t just think about the moment, you think long term, you consider implications and consequences. You’ve seen it and experienced it yourself. Your own parents and life itself taught you. There is thus a delicate balance to be maintained here – juggling simple childish needs with long term outcomes.
How and why does it go wrong?
Sometimes the moment in which you and the child find yourselves is actually more important than long term ramifications. Children have a lot to teach us about enjoying the moment. But only sometimes. Be careful. It’s a tricky business. If you get drawn into giving in too frequently to your child’s wishes it can turn a simple lighthearted 'yes, all right' into a serious tussle for control over everything. You are, first and foremost, a parent. A leader. Your child looks up to you and trusts your judgment. (eventually!)
However, let’s face it, giving in to demands is so much easier! It keeps the peace, gets the little monkey off your back. But what do you end up with? A bigger monkey who controls your decisions and has little respect for you. Some chest beating is therefore required to gently put your child back in its place as treasured offspring, not the leader.
What can parents and carers do?
Everyone wants to be loved and treasured. Your job as parent/carer requires more than just words of affirmation. You have to show your child that you take the job of looking after them seriously, through your actions. These actions sometimes come with some pretty unpopular decisions, but that’s not the most important thing here. Pleasing your child is not your duty. Protecting, guiding, loving your child is your duty. If pleasing is of higher importance, then I suggest you have gone way off track and will suffer the disastrous consequences which are surely to follow.
Explain, where possible, the reasons for your decisions. This will of course vary with the age of the child. Sometimes you just have to resort to, "Because I said so." Make sure that you and your partner agree. If you haven't yet discussed it, then inform the child that you must first talk to your partner before you decide. There is no harm in waiting. Distract the child with something else, but do not give in. It is important that your child can see that you will not be hurried or bullied into it, that every decision you make, you make carefully as you can. Offer an alternative in the meantime. If the child doesn't want that, then they must perhaps go outside to play, or to their room to think about it and come out when they are ready to behave. It's reasonable to allow the child to determine when they emerge from their room. An apology is expected if their behaviour has been naughty or unreasonable.
Children don't always like the explanations you give them, but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the explanation. Some life's lessons are hard to swallow... The fact that you take the time and patience to sit with them on your lap and gently explain is what's important. And that you stand firm by your decision. It's vital for a child to move from self-centred to other-centred. Imagine them trying to hold down a job, expecting to have all their demands met by the boss! It's just not going to work. You can help prepare them for the classroom, peer relationships and adult life in the workforce by employing this simple idea - they are not alone in the world. They must consider the thoughts, needs and decisions of others.
Make sure you connect with other parents over this. You might be surprised that everyone struggles with the same aspects of parenting, because most children are born with the identical impulse for control and survival.