Learning to say ‘Okay’

Parenting Transformation Journey – Page 18
(Click here for page 1)

This post ends by sharing a victory that wasn’t exactly as it appeared. But after you read this I think you’ll see why I’m choosing to take it anyway.

According to Nicholeen Peck, one of the most fundamental skills that our children need to learn, is the ability to accept a “no answer”. This means being able to say “okay” when they don’t get their way.

Even adults need to learn how to accept a “no answer”. We need to accept disappointments in our own lives calmly, so that we can respond (in control) instead of reacting (out of control). After all, it is all about self-government.

Another fundamental skill is learning how to disagree appropriately so that they/we are never stuck without the ability to voice their/our opinions or feelings. (Nicholeen’s book shows how.)

One of my friends on Facebook made a comment about my previous post that got me thinking. She said:

“As far as the idea of telling someone you need them to feel a certain way so that you can feel a certain way…I don’t believe in doing that. With children it’s problematic because you’ve just set up a scenario for them in which they are no longer free to feel what they feel, they must now feel what you want them to because YOUR feelings and your work are depending on it. They may chose that on the surface, but they may still feel disappointed and now feel they have to hide it in order to support you. I just don’t agree with that, it closes doors instead of opening them. BUT that said, I really love what Leslie is doing and the energy she’s putting into creating something really positive in her family.”

At first I felt that little jab in the pit of my stomach that maybe I had done something wrong. That’s never a fun feeling, but the fact that it happened caused me to stop and assess my reaction. I could see her point. I certainly never intended to manipulate the children or cause them to become overly concerned about their mother’s feelings, and I had to stop and think about whether or not I had put undue pressure or responsibility on them.

I do think it’s a valid concern, and worth noting (which is why I’m including it here). But as I reviewed the entire conversation with the kids in my mind, I was reminded of more of my interactions with my children that day that I had not described in the post, which helped me at least understand why it didn’t feel wrong at the time.

Thinking it over again in my mind was a great opportunity for self-examination, and her cautions are something I am going to watch out for in the future.

Here is the conclusion of my self-examination, and my reply to her:

Thanks for your comment… I can see how that came across. My point in sharing that piece was to show how I tried to talk them through it in an attempt to pre-teach and help them accept a “no answer” calmly…. I knew they were disappointed because they had already expressed it through the day, and they knew that I knew. There were no hidden feelings. This was just the point where they had to come to terms with the fact that it was not going to happen, and see if they could accept a “no answer” in the way they had been taught. I realized that it was going to be better if I was straight with them so that they wouldn’t keep hoping even beyond dinner and bedtime – that definitely would have been worse. Thanks again!

I realize now that it would have been more effective had I verbalized to my children more clearly what I was doing. Something like this, perhaps: “I understand that you want to go fishing today. I know that it is something you’re really looking forward to. But I am going to give you a ‘no answer’ and I want to see if you can say ‘okay’. If you don’t feel like you can say that, then you can ask me if you may disagree appropriately and we’ll talk about it…”

The way I did it instead was more vague, not clearly teaching self-governing. It was more like how I used to do it in the past. This is a good reminder to get back to the vocabulary Nicholeen teaches, so that the children always understand exactly what’s going on, and what to expect going forward. The consistency and repetition helps them feel safe, and it also helps them track more clearly the causes and effects that they experience.

I just have to close this post again with another little victory. I like to do that to help me feel encouraged to keep on going:

Last night my 11 year-old son came down long after bedtime to complain about his older brother. He was begging me to let him sleep somewhere else because the older brother was watching a movie on the iPad and it was making it hard for him to fall asleep.

Well, we have a rule for our kids about no internet behind closed doors, so I got a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach that I was going to need to confront the older brother about this. In the past, it has been a struggle for him to just say ‘okay’.

Historically, the pattern has looked like this:

  1. I make a request
  2. He asks why
  3. I explain why
  4. He tells me why not
  5. I explain some more
  6. He complains that I’m not listening
  7. I complain that he is not respecting authority
  8. He accuses me of doing something wrong
  9. I get defensive
  10. He tells me to calm down
  11. My blood boils that he didn’t just say ‘okay’ 10 steps ago
  12. It escalates until one of us walks away
  13. He feels sad and upset
  14. I swallow my pride so I can comfort him
  15. I finally listen
  16. He explains where he’s coming from
  17. He has a really good point that I never considered
  18. I apologize and modify my original request
  19. He apologizes for being frustrating
  20. He complies with the modified request
  21. We hug and express our love for each other

It’s truly an exhausting process that sometimes takes 2-3 hours (sometimes more) to get through. And it’s pretty much 100% predictable. And I had gotten to a point that I stopped hoping he would ever say ‘okay’ just because I’m his mother.

Over the years, I’ve learned I can shorten the 21-step routine if I really listen quicker, but there’s a part of me that has always been bugged that the power struggle even existed with him at all.

(On a side note, so you can get a sense of what this looked like in the early years – when he was really little, my mother visited us from out of state and was spending some one-on-one time with him. She said, “I’m SO glad that I could come to your Mom’s house to see you.” His immediate response was, “MY house.”)

Unfortunately, instead of intentionally teaching self-governing, I was in survival mode. He always seemed to make good personal choices, had good friends, had high standards of morality, and had a deep-down desire to be a good kid. So when there was a power struggle, I usually just backed off… eventually. As long as he wasn’t breaking our rules or making really stupid life choices, I mostly just avoided  conflict over the “respecting authority” element. It just wasn’t worth the fight.

Since learning about Nicholeen Peck’s Teaching Self Government, I can see how I should have been doing it differently, and it would have looked more like this:

  1. Give an instruction
  2. If they say ‘okay’, praise them
  3. If they argue, ask them if they would like to disagree appropriately

That’s pretty much it. No 21-steps, no 2-hour battle. Even when it doesn’t go perfectly:

  1. If they don’t say ‘okay’ and they don’t disagree appropriately either, describe what just happened in detail, and that because they chose not to follow the instructions, they just earned an extra chore. 
  2. Give them the extra chore and ask them to do it immediately.
  3. If they argue or refuse to do it, calmly describe what just happened in detail and explain that because they chose not to follow instructions (or because they chose not to keep a calm face, voice, and body), they earned another chore, and then tell them what that is and instruct them to do it immediately.

If it escalates, then for children 7 or older, it then goes to the Rule of 3.

Honestly, in the two weeks we’ve been implementing, I’ve only had to go to Rule of 3 once. It made a big enough impact on everyone, I think, that nobody wants to go there.

Bottom line, with this alternate approach to parenting, as long as the parent stays calm, then there is no power struggle. It’s just a calm delivery of cause and effect, with active teaching going on along the way.

But like I said in an earlier post, since my son is now already 18 and heading off to college in a few weeks, I consciously decided not to try to implement the program of consequences, etc., with him. Nicholeen’s advice instead was that we spend these last few weeks just strengthening our relationship, because it was the best thing we could do after all of the years it’s been strained.

(I did slip up once and issued a formal correction to him, which he actually accepted, possibly because it happened in front of his siblings and he liked the system and decided to go along with it for their sake.)

But about that movie in his room…

Well, it was already 10:30 pm so I was not excited about starting the 21-step routine so late. I knew it could feasibly take until after midnight to resolve, based on past history. But it had to be addressed right away.

(Remember, since I had decided not to really implement the TSG program with him, I also did not ever really make sure he learned how to disagree appropriately. In my mind, this was probably going to have to play out the old way.)

So I called him on his cell phone.

Me: “Hey, where are you?”

Him: “I’m in my room…”

Me: “I think we have a problem.”

Him – agitatedly: “Is it Kayli??” (Apparently there was an issue there that I didn’t know about.)

Me: “Um, no, this is NOT about Kayli, and actually… I have a problem with you getting angry and resistant before I’ve even said what the problem is.”

Him: “O…kay…”

Me: “Are you watching a movie?”

Him: “Yeah…”

Me: “Remember, there’s no internet in the bedrooms.”

Him: “It’s just Netflix.”

Me: “Netflix IS internet.”

Him: “O…kay…”

(He said okay?? I’ll TAKE it!)

Me: “Okay. Thanks so much. Goodnight.”

Him: “Uh… Goodnight…”

I know, it sounds a little unresolved. I admit, I got the sense that he had something else on the tip of his tongue, but I decided to leave it at that before it got any further down the 21-step routine.

Problem solved in 30 seconds flat. (No, more like: I took the chicken exit by not waiting to see if he had something else to say.)

Besides, if there was more to say, I knew we could talk about it after we were both rested.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering why I didn’t follow through to see if he complied, I would have, if I had felt it was necessary. When the expectation is clear, and he has agreed to the terms, he keeps his word. He’s proven himself on that point very solidly over the years. Plus, he shares a room with two brothers, so I would have known if the rule breach had continued after our conversation.)

Funny follow up

So I was feeling pretty victorious that I had dodged the 21-step bullet. I was so proud of him for saying ‘okay’ so quickly – that shocked both me and my husband, actually – but also I was proud of myself that after just 1.5 weeks of implementing the principles I’m learning from Nicholeen Peck, I could experience such a quick resolution with him. There was no resistance, no fight, no escalation, none of it.

Although implementing with him has been non-existent, or if at all, it’s been informal, I intentionally complimented him on it the next day. I said, “Thank you so much for just saying ‘okay’ about the Netflix thing. That was really great, and I appreciate it.”

He said, “You’re welcome…” and then he went on to explain what was really going on in his head at the time.

Here’s HIS side of the story:

To begin with, he had asked his little brother NOT to use packaging tape on the wood bed frame to hold the alarm clock suspended over his head, because it can mess up the wood finish. The little brother argued that it can’t hurt the wood, and they got into a power struggle over it.

Eventually, the distraught little brother came downstairs to have ME settle the argument.

I didn’t know that an argument was going on, so here’s how that conversation went:

Little brother: “Mom, can packaging tape hurt wood?”

Me: “Yeah, actually it can leave a really nasty residue. Remember those marks on my dresser from the old house? That was from packaging tape. I mean, yeah, you can get it off with Googone or something like that, but it’s a pain, so I wouldn’t want you using packaging tape on wood.”

Clearly, that’s not what he expected to hear.

So he changed the subject and just asked if he could sleep somewhere else because of the movie.

So when I called the older son and said, “Where are you?” He responded hesitatingly, “I’m in my room…” because he was already in bed, and tired, and didn’t want to have to come down to talk to me about an issue with one of his siblings.

I said, “I think we have a problem,” and he snapped because he knew that Kayli must have tattled on him about something. So when I told him that wasn’t what it was about, he was caught off guard, and didn’t know what else it could be about.

I said, “Are you watching a movie?

He couldn’t figure out what that had to do with anything, so his answers continued to be hesitant and guarded. He just couldn’t predict where I was going with my odd, unrelated questions.

So even when I got right to the point, he thought there might still be something more coming. He was still hoping I wasn’t going to ask him to come down for a big long talk about some other issue.

So when that’s all it was, he said, “O…kay…” waiting for more, and that was it.

So although it wasn’t the text-book beautiful ‘okay’ that I hoped it was, it still fixed the issue, and we avoided a hairy argument.

I’ll take it. I’ll still count it as a victory.

Baby steps to self-government… baby steps to self-government.

If you disagree with anything I’m doing, then before leaving your comments, all I ask is that you please first watch this BBC episode so you can see where this is going. It might be a little messy in the middle, but I do believe and trust in the end result. Each of my posts – standing alone – will not provide the big picture… but the episode does. Enjoy!

Leslie Householder
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