How to Put the Kybosh on Arguing

How to Put the Kybosh on Arguing

One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents, and one I had to work through myself, is kids’ arguing over every little thing.

You ask your son to pick up his clothes off the bathroom floor and he launches into a series of questions like “Can I do it later?”, or “Why do I have to do that now?”, or he points out that his sister's room has clothes all over the floor, or he says he doesn't feel good, and on and on and on.

Eventually, you get fed up, raise your voice and shout "Just do it! Why do I have to repeat things over and over to you?!!!!"  Your son burst into tears and stalks off, you feel guilty, and there goes your mood.

This is a pretty common scenario, and it stems mostly from our really good intentions. We want our kids to be happy, we want things to go smoothly, and we hope that if we just deliver our wishes calmly and in a positive manner, our kids will do what they're supposed to do and life will be lovely.

Sometimes that happens, but too many times it goes just like the scenario above.

The Reality

Kids test. They resist. They try to get away with stuff. It's normal!

Here's a good way to look at it: A significant step in a child's development is to test and stretch limits. It's an expression of their growing creativity, budding cognition, and exercising their will. They are trying to find out where the boundaries are, and whether or not they can be shifted or even knocked down. It's a natural part of psychological growth.

This doesn't mean they're bad kids. It means they are learning to use their minds to come up with different ways to get around an obstacle. It's just that the obstacle they are challenging is not one that should be movable, and it is up to you to help them learn which obstacles should be tackled and which should not.

How to Handle It

Here's a 3 step process that's quite simple, fail safe, and works to put a halt to the whining, arguing, and resistance your kids put up to basic tasks they need to do.

Step 1 - Change your mindset.

Your kids do not need to be happy every moment of the day. Rather it is in their best interest to develop self-discipline, and this will involve being upset sometimes.

At first, discipline comes from the outside (from you), and eventually it comes from inside (they internalize it and guide themselves). When you do not allow arguing, you are teaching your kids self-discipline. It's a good thing, even if they don't embrace it right away.

Step 2 - Be firm and consistent.

Let them know that when you ask them to do something that needs to be done, you will not entertain questions, have discussions, or listen to arguments. This is a really important step and if not followed, you will continue to have problems. Here’s the process:

  • You will say it once.
  • You will give one warning (at the most). If there is any further arguing or protests, or outright refusals, there will be consequences.
  • Name the consequence ahead of time, and follow through.
  • Let them know they can control the consequences by either complying or not.

Usually, consequences are not necessary after a couple of go rounds. Once your kids know that when you say it, you mean it, they will stop resisting. They may grumble, but they will do whatever it is.

The trick is truly meaning what you say, and being consistent about enforcing it.

Step 3 - Table the discussions.

If there are things that you would like your kids to be able to discuss, or allow them to voice their objections, then hold these discussions at another time. You can have family meetings to go over things, which by the way is a great idea, or you can talk things over in the course of casual chatter.

By allowing your kids to voice their ideas, feelings, or objections, you will find that they argue less. You are always the final decision maker, but you can maintain that role while also encouraging your kids to express their feelings and be heard. Everyone wants to be heard.

These kinds of discussions have a secondary benefit of teaching kids how to look at things objectively. That will depend on the developmental age, but it’s fine to start early.

The one caveat is this:  Never, ever hold these discussions when you are in the midst of asking your kids to do something, or during a disciplinary conversation. You will sabotage the whole process, and give them the message that they can get their way by arguing.

Shouldn't I Explain Things?

There has been a move afoot for some time to use explanation as a way of helping kids to comply with rules, get things done, or learn how to discipline themselves. This is a very treacherous practice, and one that has backfired.

Here's why: When your kids start questioning you as to why they have to do something when you have asked them to do it, they are not really interested in the why. The question is being used to resist having to do it. The intention is to get out of it. The intention is not to understand the why.

There are exceptions of course, but almost always the intention is to resist. This is especially true with younger kids. When I see I parent earnestly explaining in detail to a 4 year old why he has to brush his teeth every morning while the child whines and resists, I want to say, "He's totally not hearing you. He simply doesn't want to do it. Stop explaining and take him to the sink, get his toothbrush, and commence with the brushing!"

Our job is to know that and to work with the intention, and not get pulled into the back and forth resistance. It's natural to want to explain, and the belief is that by explaining we are honoring our child's humanity and attending to his feelings.

Unfortunately, that is not what we are doing at all. We are giving into his intent to obstruct and slide out of something. That's the behavior you need to curb.

By setting limits on the arguing, you are lending your child strength to get past his immaturity and desire to procrastinate, or get out of things that need to be done.

The truth is that most explanations go in one ear and out. A simple quick explanation for an inquisitive child might be fine, but when explanations are used by children to argue and work their way toward undoing your decision, then it becomes a vehicle for a power struggle.

Recognize the intent and deal with that.

I'm not saying that I in any way agree with the old adage, "Children should be seen and not heard." Not at all. I am saying that the time for hearing should not occur in the midst of getting things done, or disciplining. By allowing that, you are walking right into the dance of your child's resistance. He is not learning anything from your explanation other than "if I ask questions, I might get out of it."

Save the explanation for a time when your child is receptive to really learning about the why, if you feel that is necessary.

If you have an exceptionally inquisitive child who actually is satisfied with explanations, and still complies with what you ask after having asked and received an explanation, then you may use them. But be careful and keep watch. As soon as arguing commences, you are in a power struggle.

Teens and Negotiation

Teens are a little different. They sometimes are questioning because they really are interested in the why, and they want to express their views. You can entertain this, and it can be helpful to find out exactly what your teen is thinking and how she feels.

You can also make use of negotiation with a teen if you set the rules of how and when it is to be done. The rules should be:

  • Always be respectful. You can say how you feel, or what you object to, but without personal animosity and in a respectful manner. That goes for us too.
  • You have the last word. After your teen lays out their objections, opinions, or ideas, and you have listened and evaluated them, what you say still goes. That has to be understood and agreed upon up front.

If your teen makes a good case, and you want to reconsider, you can ask for time to reconsider, or you can change your mind on the spot. Changing your mind does not mean you are giving in, or teaching your teen that they can get away with stuff. What you are teaching them is to think through issues, learn how to present them, and use their creativity and cognition to solve problems.  That's all good stuff, and well worth the time involved.

Basically you are saying to them,

"Give it your best shot, and if you make a good case, I will change my mind. If not, we stay where we are."

Negotiation should not take place when you are asking for basic tasks to be done that have already been discussed or laid out like household chores, homework, feeding the dog, etc. Those types of activities should not be up for discussion other than coming to some agreements about scheduling them.

Negotiation can be used when your teen is asking to do something such as go on an overnight with friends, take a trip to the beach, or take on a new extracurricular activity.

Family Meetings

Family meetings are a great way to give kids a chance to voice their views. A lot of families hold these weekly. They can be used to discuss routines, chores, and organization, but they can also be used for planning activities together, or giving your kids a chance to discuss anything they have on their minds. This is the place to allow objections, and to provide explanations.

Family meetings are also a good way to help your kids understand that they are part of a group that works together to run the household, get things done, and pursue all of the individual activities of each member.

Too often kids see chores as simply something their parents want them to do. Many today think they should be paid to do them. They don't understand that it's part of being in a family and that we each have to contribute.

Family meetings really help to teach that concept, and to make each child feel that they are an important part of the group. That feeling and understanding usually cuts down on arguing. It also teaches teamwork, empathy, problem solving and collaboration.

The “Do It Now” Command

One common objection kids have that may come up in a discussion is the "do it now" command. Sometimes it is necessary to "do it now," but most often you can give a little warning.

If your daughter is playing with her dolls and she has them all laid out and is making up a story with them that she's enjoying, she won't respond well to "You have to get in the bathtub right now!" A better approach would be, "You need to take a bath. I'll give you 15 minutes to finish playing and put everything away, and then you need to get in the tub. If you have a kitchen timer, set it so she can see it and know how much time she has before it dings.

Being cognizant of transition time and allowing for it may cut down on a lot of arguing. There isn't always time for making transitions, but as often as you can, allow it. Just be consistent about the time you've allowed, and when it's up, make sure you follow through with whatever you've asked.

Your Connection

If your child argues with you a lot, or is generally angry and uncooperative, it is possible that he feels disconnected from you. This can occur quite easily because there is just so much to do. If you work, handle the house, and run everyone to practices, do errands, and anything else that pops up, life may appear to your child to be just a list of to dos that keeps him from having your attention or spending time with you.

The more stressed you are, the more argumentative he may become, and the more your relationship consists of conflicts and discipline. It's a vicious cycle that will only get worse if not recognized and changed.

Make sure you are giving equal time to positive attention and interaction with your kids so that they feel loved and connected. This doesn't mean you have to take them places, buy them stuff, or create exciting experiences. It means time allowing them to chat while you listen attentively, giving affection, showing interest in what they think or how they feel, and letting them know you understand their feelings. If you do that, they will in most cases be much more cooperative.

They other side of that is giving too much attention, catering to every little whim, and not setting limits or holding your child to their responsibilities. This creates entitlement, and entitlement over long periods of time creates little narcissists.

Reasonable limits coupled with love and affection have the effect of producing responsible kids that can empathize with others, and who ultimately find strength in being self disciplined and compassionate at the same time. That's the goal.

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