I once attended a seminar on counselling ethics with a wonderful lecturer called Margaret Nelson-Agee. One of the things she said, that I find crops up again and again in my daily life, was “Until you have two competing ethics, you don’t have an ethical dilemma.”

As parents, we often find ourselves with two competing parenting “ethics” and these are the source of a parenting dilemma that means we are uncertain of “which way to jump.”

I’d like to share a couple of my favourites:

Running late in the morning

Here are some of the dilemmas we face:
If I don’t hurry him up, he’ll never get to school
If I don’t yell at him, he won’t take any notice
If I do yell at him it is a horrible start to the day
If I am always the one who gets him going, how will he ever learn responsibility?
If I let him run late, he’ll get into trouble – and then he’ll have a horrible day at school
If I let him run late, he’ll get into trouble – and he’s in enough trouble already
If I let him run late, nothing much will happen to him because his teacher/the school is slack. How will he ever learn any responsibility?
If he runs late, then I won’t get to work on time

Instruction vs. Information

One way out of the pickle is to stop giving instructions to our children and to start giving information about ourselves and/or the time constraints. This saves us from yelling and nagging and keeps the responsibility for timeliness with our child. It also leaves the problem for our tardy child to sort, rather than making each episode of foot-dragging our problem to solve. (If you have a work commitment immediately after dropping your child off, arrange for one week that you may have to arrive a little late.)

There are two ways of giving your child the information he needs to leave on time. One way is to be “the clock”. Keep reporting in. “We need to leave in half an hour, if I am to get you to school on time…We need to leave in twenty minutes, if I am to get you to school on time… We need to leave in ten minutes, if I am to get you to school on time… We need to leave in five minutes, if I am to get you to school on time.”

The other way, is to give a progress report on what we are doing. “I am having my breakfast now…I am washing up now…I am cleaning my teeth…I am putting on lipstick.”

Keep your dignity

The fact that we have stopped yelling and nagging and chasing, usually means that our child senses something different is going on. The fact that we have stopped whining, berating and pleading means we are retaining our parental dignity and we will feel better about ourselves.

Keep it his problem

Most importantly, we are keeping the problem with our child, rather than our working frantically on the solution.

When you are ready to go, sit down with a newspaper, a cup of coffee and your car keys. Let the house go quiet. It may take a while on the first day, but he will show up ready and rather bemused at your change of demeanour.

He may show up very agitated about being late. Look sympathetic and say kindly, “I know it’s a worry. I am waiting, ready to leave the moment you are ready”.

Once he is ready and you are in the car – or walking – chat as harmoniously as you can – or stay warmly silent – but definitely no lectures. Let him do his own learning.

What about the other children?

What do we do about the other, presumably punctual, children who are worried about being late? Tell them that they should show up ready on time and join you at the table. Let them know that you will cover for them when they get to school.

When you get to school, start with the youngest, take him to his class and excuse him for being late. “Circumstances beyond his control.” Take the next one to his class. “Circumstances beyond his control.”

The one who made the family run late? Let him take his own responsibility. He’s on his own!

Breakfast Mayhem

Breakfast is another of those times when we get ourselves tied up in conflicting ideas. Here are some of the dilemmas that we face:
If she doesn’t get a good breakfast inside her, her brain won’t work properly and she won’t learn
If she goes to school hungry, it reflects very badly on me as a parent
If I feed her, she will eat, but, for Heaven’s sake, she’s five!
If I make a fuss about breakfast, she’ll go to school unhappy
If I don’t make a fuss about breakfast, she wont eat anything
Maybe, if I gave her just what she wanted, she would eat it
If I let her choose, she will only eat Coco pops
If I let her choose she will want pancakes and I haven’t got the time
Is she hungry – or not?

“Asking the child” whether or not she is hungry is often too loaded. I prefer a simple test. Next weekend, when there is no pressure to rush anywhere, don’t offer breakfast and see how long it takes for your child’s natural hunger to kick in.

If you are dealing with a child who is hungry at 7:00am, you may be dealing with a morning power struggle. (“If you say I need to eat, I won’t eat breakfast on principle!”).

If you are dealing with a child who doesn’t naturally get hungry till 10.30am, then it is going to be seriously pushing up hill to try and get a decent breakfast into her at 7.00am.

Smart strategies

For the non-hungry at 7.00am child, make the consumption of breakfast as easy as possible. Give them food that they find easy to get down. One of the simplest ways is to provide a fortified drink. It is easy to get down and food through a straw always has its own natural attraction.

For the hungry but belligerent child, avoid food fights. Simply put out what the child sort-of reasonably likes and what is very simple for you to prepare. (The less effort you put into preparation, the less vested interest you have in whether it is eaten or not.) Your job is done. You have provided the opportunity for appropriate food. What the child does with the opportunity is her business.

If she declines to eat – or only eats a little – don’t comment. Leave it available until it is time to leave the house. Your child may come back to it. She may not.

What if she is hungry later?

If you are seriously concerned, you can always put a little extra in her lunch-box. However, my experience is that, once you have taken all the battle out of breakfast, (it may take a couple of days while you establish your own credibility), your child is free to respond to her appetite only.

In this day and age of Eating Disorders, the more we can do to give our children the opportunity to eat only when hungry and stop when their bodies say they are full enough, is a great parenting gift.

Next time

Almost every parenting dilemma has the clash of our trying to keep our children out of trouble versus our children’s need to do their own learning from experience.


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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