“Why do you have to argue about everything I ask you to do? Why can’t you just cooperate nicely for once? You make everything so difficult.”
If your child has turned into a member of the debate team, then you are experiencing their prefrontal cortex, the logical brain, at work. Your “argumentative” child is exercising and practicing their reasoning and judgment skills. So next time your child doesn’t easily comply, try to think to yourself, “The brain is developing right now. How marvelous.”
The prefrontal cortex is in charge of planning, paying attention, judgment, reasoning, impulse control, and short-term memory. The family is the safest place for kids to practice and develop logic. Currently, brain science believes that the majority of the prefrontal cortex neural pathway development is completed by age 25. So, your middle-school aged child needs many opportunities to practice reasoning, solving problems and debating with you.
I realize that living with a future attorney can be quite frustrating. To help resolve this challenge, it is important to clearly state which issues are to be discussed and which ones are not to be discussed. If you change in mid-steam from a “no-discussion” stance to an “OK, we’ll talk about it” stance, your negotiator gets confused. This confusion leads your child to think that every issue is open to debate.
There are three key elements in leading kids to negotiate at the appropriate time and to comply at other times. The first is to determine who has ownership of making the final decision on how to solve an issue. The solution can be decided by the adults, the children, or the parents and children together. Discussion and negotiation can occur when the child has full or partial ownership but not when the parent has full ownership. Michael Popkins gives clear guidelines for determining problem ownership in his Active Parenting Series parenting books.
The second element is to clearly state to your children which issues are nonnegotiable and which are negotiable. Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson in Growing Up Again, 2nd edition, offer a worksheet format where you can write down your nonnegotiable and negotiable rules. A posted written rules sheet can be useful for future reference.
The third element to enforcing a nonnegotiable guideline is to respond to your children in a manner that does not fuel the negotiation. If your child keeps arguing it is because you have kept the argument going. You probably respond to the “Why do I have to” question because you think that you always need to explain your reasoning. You do not.
If your child’s goal is to gain power and get what they want, then your explanation will probably not stop your child from arguing. Your child will not say, “Thank you for explaining that to me. Now I understand and I will do what you want me to do.” Don’t we wish!
A mom shared with me how her daughter argues about everything and it drives her nuts. The argument could be about taking a shower, brushing her teeth, or doing her homework. It turns out that the mom had fallen into the “parental explanation” negative loop that kept the argument going and her frustration rising.
Instead of responding to the “why” question, I taught her how to instead keep restating the directive. Again, this approach is for when your child is not part of the decision making process.
Here is how she responded that stopped the arguing.
Mom: It’s time for a shower.
Daughter: Why do I have to take a shower now?
Mom: Shower time.
Daughter: But I don’t want to take a shower.
Mom: You can read after you take a shower.
Daughter: I took one last night.
Daughter: Oh. All right.
The key ingredient in your response is to keep repeating the directive in various short forms. Don’t give reasons that try to convince your child to agree with you. If you do, then you are debating and this is where the problem lies. You are not in a courtroom trying to win the case. When enforcing a nonnegotiable guideline, you are the director and you are respectfully and calmly reminding your child what is expected. Plan on calmly repeating yourself a few times.
When directives are given in this way, children will soon understand that you are not negotiating and they will follow your lead. Make sure, though, that they also have plenty of opportunities to discuss problems and practice negotiating with you.