“How do I get my child to behave?” is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from parents and adults who care for kids. When it comes to discipline so much of the focus goes on ‘what to do when a child does ….?’ Discipline strategies are usually aimed on what to in the moment and usually after a child has erupted and things have gone awry. Fortunately, there is one particular discipline strategy that doesn’t require waiting for an incident to happen. It takes a more proactive approach to dealing with troublesome behaviour and takes into consideration both the developmental and relational needs of a child. It is called ‘soliciting good intentions’ and the aim is to work ahead of challenging problems instead of when emotions and instincts are really stirred up. (1)
‘Soliciting good intentions’ means a parent uses their relationship with a child to help them aim their behaviour in a civilized direction. It is done in anticipation of challenges and means an adult will need to take a proactive stance to work ahead of incidents. While it is impossible to predict every problem that can unfold with kids, adults are usually aware of what their child will find difficult. When a parent solicits a child’s intentions they are trying to get their child onside in advance of incidents. The child is given the opportunity to agree ahead of situations that they will behave in a certain way. For example, whenever my kids and I went on an outing I would ask them ahead of time, “Can I count on you to hold my hand when we are at the Aquarium today because it is a big place and I need to know where you are at all times.” If we went to the park I would usually ask them, “Can I count on you to come with me when it is time to leave the park and not run away and say that you don’t want to go? I will give you as much time at the park as I can and when we need to go, I need you to come okay?” They were usually quite agreeable and willing to point in my direction.
My children’s good intentions would sometimes get lost in the midst of gazing at fish on Aquarium outings and while tumbling down slides. When their little hand would squirm to let go of mine I would remind them of the intentions they had made earlier to me to hold on. This usually helped to quell their frustration and resistance. If it didn’t, I usually knew that other things were stirring them up that needed attention – like hunger or naptime – or escaping from an excess of stimulation. Sometimes at the park, I would have to remind my kids of the intentions they had made to me earlier, while also acknowledging that sometimes it is hard to leave when we’re having fun. Soliciting intentions ahead of time can make transitioning between events easier and involve less friction.
Soliciting good intentions is a discipline strategy I still rely on heavily as a parent, even as my children approach teenage years. I use it most often when I need to get ahead of issues that could be contentious – such as shopping for a friend’s birthday present at the toy store. I still ask my kids if I can count on them not to ask me to buy them a toy while we are shopping for someone else before entering the store. I also ask them if I can count on them to clean up their room without having to ask them continuously to do so on the weekend when this chore is done. It has saved us all much resistance and frustration when agendas can’t be realized or are difficult.
The Developmental Benefits of Soliciting Good Intentions
There are a number of developmental benefits to a child when adults solicit their good intentions. This action naturally imparts the parent’s values as well as orients the child to what is considered civilized behaviour. It also places the child’s hands on the steering wheel when it comes to their own actions. It helps point them toward become their own separate person and being independent. By soliciting the child’s intentions ahead of time the focus is shifted away from violations, punishment, and making demands of them in the heat of the moment. It helps to preserve the parent and child relationship and avoid power struggles and emotionally charged moments where patience on both sides can quickly run out. We also don’t have to wait for a child to get something wrong before we point them towards the ‘right direction.’ The other benefit is that even if a child misses the mark, this is about intentions and not perfection. It leaves a lot of room for a child to keep aiming in a parent’s direction despite the challenges they may have in getting there.
Soliciting a child’s intentions is also an effective discipline strategy that can be used in place of consequences; which requires a child to think twice and comes after there has been a problem. We know young children do not typically think twice before acting until brain integration has occurred between the ages of 5 to 7 (on average). Until this time they are instinctively moved, with emotional outbursts being commonplace. When we solicit a child’s good intentions we lean on our relationship with them in order to get them onside. This will help us avoid using contrived or overpowering discipline techniques for the purpose of achieving compliance. If a child is not attached to an adult, their capacity to point a child in a particular direction is weak, if not nonexistent.
How Can We Solicit a Child’s Good Intentions?
Practically speaking, when we solicit a child’s good intentions we will need to collect them first by getting in their face in a friendly way with a smile, the sound of our voice, focusing on what they are attending to, or helping them with something. When we feel we have their attention we can then point them towards realistic goals and work in anticipation of problems. We can draw the child onside with their good intentions and identify how we would like them to act instead of focusing on their failures and wrongdoings.
We can also support and encourage a child when they are faced with challenges in living up to their intentions. It is one thing to form an intention and another thing to be able to achieve it. Even as adults we make intentions that we struggle to realize – this is just part of being human. What matters is how we deal with the internal conflict that arises between our goals and the impediments we face in realizing them. When we come to a child’s side and enlist their agreement to point in a particular direction, we help them realize it is natural to wrestle with conflicting thoughts and feelings. It may seem small and insignificant to solicit a child’s intentions today, but this is how a child starts to realize they can steer their own behaviour and realize their human potential.
(1) For more information please see Gordon Neufeld’s Discipline that Doesn’t Divide DVD available through the Neufeld Institute. You can also hear Gordon Neufeld give two keynote addresses on discipline at the Neufeld Conference April 30th in Richmond, BC, Canada. See www.neufeldinstitute.org for more information.
Copyright 2016 Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, in private practice supporting families, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information.