Give Information and then Back-Off: A Choice Theory Parenting Assignment

Parent Homework Assignment 8-1 — From How to Listen so Parents will Talk . . .

Choice Theory Communication Skills Training: How to Provide Information and Then Back Off, Instead of Trying Too Hard to Control Your Child’s Decision Making

As a loving parent, if you’re concerned about your children’s behaviors, you’ll probably have a strong and nearly irresistible impulse to tell them how to live their lives. After all, you’re the adult and they should listen to your excellent advice. You may feel the urge to say:

  • You need to clean your room now because being disorganized and undisciplined is a bad habit that will make your life miserable.
  • Alcohol and drugs are illegal and so if you go out and behave illegally, I’ll call the police and have you ticketed.
  • You need to start caring about your grades at school and that means scheduling time for homework and studying for tests.
  • Swearing is unacceptable in this house and if you do it again, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.

Unfortunately, as you may recall from your own childhood, when parents are bossy and insistent about how things should be, children often become more stubborn and resistant. Then parents begin to nag and lecture and the pattern of advice-giving and advice-rejection deepens. This assignment is designed to help you communicate important information to your children without starting an all-out power struggle or negative nagging pattern. The following suggestions are appropriate only if the situation isn’t dangerous and you don’t need to jump in and directly and forcefully protect your children:

1. Ask permission. If you have a strong opinion that you’d like your child to hear, try asking permission to share it. Say something like, “Can I share my opinion on this with you?” Then, either your child will say “yes” and you can share your opinion or she’ll say “no” and then you’ll need to accept her boundary (in response to a “no,” you might say, “Okay. Thanks for being honest with me. Let me know if you change your mind” and then walk away).

2. Express your intention not to express your opinion. You could try telling your child, “I have an opinion on this, but I trust that you can work it out, or that you’ll ask me for help if you need it. So I’m going to try to keep my mouth shut for now.” This gives your child the message that you’re trying to respect his ability to work out his own problems. You can also add humor into this or other power-sharing techniques by adding: “You should really appreciate this, because you know how hard it is for me to keep my mouth shut and not give you advice.”

3. Provide your information or opinion and then back off.  If you can’t resist giving your opinion, just do it and then back off and let your child consider your input. The key to this strategy is patience. Undoubtedly, you’ll provide excellent advice and then your child will look like she’s not considering your advice and so you’ll have the urge to repeat your advice over and over until you see action. Instead of falling into this pattern, try saying, “Look. I’ve got an opinion, which you probably already know. But instead of staying quiet, I’m just going to say it and then let you make your own decision on how to handle your situation. It’s your life. You have to make your own decisions. But I love you and can’t stop myself from telling you what I think, so here it is.”

As you probably already know, if you express your opinion you may get a strong emotional response (e.g., “I’m fifteen years old and I can make my own decisions!”). Although this seems weird, if you give lots of advice, your children may see your ideas and opinions as evidence that you don’t believe they’re competent to make their own decisions. This is why you should always express your advice with love and concern; avoid sounding as if your main goal is to control your child’s behavior.

Finally, if the situation is dangerous or potentially so, skip the less direct parenting recommendations listed above and instead think strategically about how to deliver direct advice that will be heeded. You’ll probably need to use a more direct approach than is described here, and you may need to consult with a professional.

More assignments like this and more are in the book, How to Listen so Parents will Talk —

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