How do we “make” our child do what we want, if we don’t use force? And brushing teeth is a perfect example, because I’ve never met a child who was internally motivated to brush his teeth — or a parent who hasn’t been frustrated trying to get kids to brush.
“I’m struggling with how to enforce limits without a consequence. For example, brushing teeth — she’ll refuse. It’s not reasonable for me to do it by force, so I tell her if she can’t brush her teeth, I can’t read a bedtime story to her. I do not understand how to set limits if there are no consequences for ignoring the limit.”
Naturally, we’re tempted to threaten our child with punishment. That is, in fact, the only way to force a human to do something they don’t want to do. But look at the cost:
But we do, at times, have to insist on certain things. For instance, brushing teeth. What can we do?
1. Stay calm. If you get upset, it moves your child into fight or flight, which makes you look like the enemy — and makes her less likely to cooperate. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is NOT an emergency. You always have the power to calm the storm, or to inflame it.
2. Acknowledge your child’s perspective — sincerely and with empathy: “You really don’t like brushing your teeth, do you, Sweetie? I hear you, it’s boring to stand there and brush when you’d rather be playing.”
3. Restate your limit: “In this house, we all brush our teeth before bed. That keeps our teeth healthy.”
4. Give her what she wants in her mind using wish fulfillment: “I bet when you’re grown up you’ll decide NEVER to brush your teeth! Or maybe you’ll have toothpaste that tastes like something super delicious and you’ll LOVE brushing!” Brain scans show that when we imagine having what we want, the brain indicates satisfaction as if we actually have it, so this helps your child feel better. And using imagination to “think” about the issue gives your child more access to the rational brain. Finally, you’re showing her that you do care about her happiness, even when you can’t say yes to what she wants.
5. Invite cooperation through play. Once you make it a game, you eliminate the stand-off. Unless kids are upset or tired, they can’t resist an invitation to play. So get him giggling.
6. Find a win/win solution. If you think outside the box — and you have time to be creative — you can always find a solution. Just your commitment to doing so will enlist your child in helping find one. ““Hmm… you don’t want to brush…AND we need to keep those teeth clean so the sugar bugs don’t eat holes in them….What can we do to make this work for both of us?”
If you stay calm, you will always find a way to get your child’s teeth brushed. Of course, what works this week will stop working next week, so finding new strategies will require creativity on your part. But as it becomes clear to your child that brushing is non-negotiable, there will be less resistance.
Is this more work than just making your child brush? Yes, unfortunately it is. But it’s much more pleasant than holding her down or punishing her. And it’s better for your child’s development. Look what she’s learning:
What more could you ask?
May you make miracles today, large and small.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting – you can visit her at ahaparenting.com
We highly recommend her book:
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