How to Stop Arguing with Your Child

In this episode: Janet responds to a Facebook message from a parent who describes her 6-year-old as argumentative and resistant, and she’s running out of patience. She says, “I recognize that he is testing limits and trying to establish his voice and independence in the world,” but she has other kids and feels her son’s questioning takes up too much of her time. She wonders if she should be flexible with him, or if that approach will just intensify his relentless push-back.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who is losing patience with her son’s constant pushback. She understands that he needs to establish his voice in the world, but she’s getting weary of the amount of time she spends with him in relentless negotiations. She’s wondering how much is too much.

Here’s the Facebook message I received:

“Hi Janet, and all,

Thank you for being such an invaluable resource for my family. I searched your archives but couldn’t find anything relevant to a specific challenge we are facing. My six-year-old son is very argumentative. I recognize that he is testing limits and trying to establish his voice and independence in the world, but he argues with every single instruction we give him. For example, “We need to brush teeth in five minutes.” “How about six minutes.” And then he argues back and forth with me.

Typically I try to hear him out, but remain firm on my instructions or expectations. But I am conflicted. Should I show him flexibility about things that are truly flexible, or am I opening myself up to relentless questioning by hearing him out? Perhaps I just need to level up my patience, but the amount of time this takes often feels unrealistic when I’ve also got other kids to attend to.

Thanks so much for any advice you might have.”

Okay, you heard me laugh because I love that children do this, practicing being their assertive selves. And, like she says, establishing their voice and their independence in the world. “This is me! This is what I want to do.” This begins with toddlers saying “no” or showing us that they’re not listening, they’re not going to do it. And this need to be their own person actually only increases when they are in a healthy relationship with their parents. Which is obviously the case here.

But the important thing for us to understand is that our children still need us to be that confident leader, and to be able to hold our own with them. They need it through adulthood.

The fact that this parent says that she is conflicted is eye opening for me, because that tells me – if I didn’t already know by her asking the question – that her son is feeling that, and that’s actually a big part of why he keeps doing this.

So, as leaders it’s great to get the help we need, or get the mindsets that we need to be able to have a clear vision, and not be conflicted. And that doesn’t mean that we will never say yes to a child’s requests, or hear their arguments. Quite the opposite. It means that we welcome their disagreement. We welcome them to share who they are. We want that. But it doesn’t affect us in our own clarity about ourselves.

We’re willing to explore with them certain things, even. Like that extra minute before he brushes his teeth. That’s, to me, and especially funny one, because I’m thinking, what’s going to happen in that one minute that he wants? And I want to ask him, “I hear you wanting another minute. What would you like to do in that one minute?”

And then, if his response actually made sense to me I might say, “Okay, sure. You can have that other minute.”

But then when he starts to argue again, the next time, “Now I need another minute,” I would assert myself there and say, “No, we really can’t do that. So let’s get going. But I hear you, wanting another minute.” And that’s the way that I would handle all of his arguments.

The problems and the perpetuation of this happen when we engage in a argument. And there’s no reason for us to, because as confident leaders we know that we are in charge. I know there are parents that recoil at that idea that a parent should be in charge, but that’s what authoritative parenting is — the sweet spot that we all want to get to. Authoritative does it with love, but is still in charge, because children need that. They really don’t want to be making the rules and deciding things at that age.

We find the balance when we, again, feel so clear and comfortable in ourselves and this role that we welcome children to say whatever they say. We’re not going to try to convince them of our side. That’s where the argument happens. If we think about it, usually we are trying to get our child to say, “Okay.”

He wants another minute and I’m saying, “No, we’re not going to do that, but I hear you.” That conflict is often what children need to have with us. That conflict is where they get to be their independent selves in that moment.

It’s also where they get to complain to us. This mother indicates there’s other siblings. They get to complain to us about that. They get to say, without actually saying, “Hey, I’m not cool with everything that’s going on here. I’ve got feelings that are a little edgy sometimes, or even more than that. And the way I’m gonna express them is by saying no to you, pushing back.”

So maybe in terms of pushing back we can think of ourselves as this very firm but, at the same time, soft backboard that welcomes the pushing. It doesn’t intimidate us at all, it doesn’t move us, it doesn’t change us, it doesn’t make us feel weaker. We know it’s positive for our child to go there and do that, we welcome the pushing. And there’s no reason for me to argue with you.

So that basic mindset, that’s what we want to get to. And we’re not all going to be perfect at this, but…

This works with all people, by the way. One of my friends was sharing how she wanted to ask her boss for a raise, and she was intimidated because she knew this boss would have a big explosion about it, probably. I suggested that she not push back on his feelings or his arguments, even if he said things like, “You don’t deserve this, and you don’t work hard enough.” I would actually say back, “Wow, you have those feelings. You’re not so sure about me, you really don’t feel I’m working hard enough.” And then I loved this idea that my friend had, which was ask him to think about it and get back to her. So she wasn’t going to push back on his feelings, try to convince him of her side. She was going to allow him to have his process.

And that’s what children need, too.

The fact that this mother says she’s taking time with this means that she’s getting sucked in, she’s getting caught up. She’s trying to convince him. She’s trying to avoid him having the meltdown. That doesn’t work with children.

So the way this could look, in practice … well, I’ll give a couple of examples. Let’s do the example of where the answer ends up being a no, and that it’s going to go the way that this mother thinks best, as the leader. And that would probably especially be at times of transition. Brushing teeth, that’s usually an end of the day transition, that is when children are least able to make choices. I wrote a post about this called Setting Limits With Toddlers – The Choices They Can’t Make, and it is about times that are difficult for toddlers, when they really need us to help them through. And a six-year-old is no different in that respect.

I think we as adults are no different. When we’re going through a big transition in life, we’re less likely to be able to handle all of these other decisions. We’re overwhelmed. Children feel like that at the end of the day. They’re tired, they’ve got to let go of the day and go into this sleep place. It’s a tough time. So that is the time I would be very unlikely to allow for the flexibility.

So I say, “Okay, we need to brush teeth in five minutes.” And he says, “How about six minutes?” I think I would say, “Huh, another minute eh? That sounds interesting, but no. This is what we’re doing. Come on, I’m going to help you into the bathroom.”

That is seeing an overwhelmed person. a person who I don’t need to convince, and they don’t need to like everything I say and do and all the choices I make. That’s seeing a child at the end of the day, kind of throwing out his last bits of stress feelings before he can relax and go to bed. And I want to be that backboard that he can push up against.

Now let’s say this was at a different time of day, and I was actually completely open to him having another minute, or two minutes, or whatever the specifics were. I would still start off with welcoming the child’s feelings. Not going to that fear place in us, that worries, “Oh no, if he doesn’t agree with me I can’t be his leader right now.” Or, “Ugh, he’s going to get upset, I really hate when that happens.” Not going there. Instead, seeing that all as positive, seeing that all as safe. Seeing ourselves as able to be in this role. We all got hired for this job. We’re not trying out for it. We can do this.

This parent asks, “Should I show him flexibility about things that are truly flexible?” Yes. I might say, “Ah, you know what? Yeah. That’s fine with me.” Or I say, “Okay, I can give you the one minute, but that’s about it, because we really need to go after that.” I’m still the strong backboard, I’m not trying to oh, maybe I can please him right here and give him what he wants, and avoid something. No, I’m really coming from a platform of strength. Loving strength. We’re holding our own. Holding ourselves strong and separate, the leaders.

And it shouldn’t take you any more time. It’s just that moment that it takes to say, “You know, you’ve got a point there. Yes, we can do that. Sure, that works.” It’s either that or, “No, that doesn’t work for me, that’s not going to work, we’re going to do this. But I hear you really wanting to do that.”

It can help to always end with hearing our child, while we’re holding our own in our choice.

And we can also change our mind. We can do all of those things once we have the mindset of ourselves as the leader and all of their arguments and limit pushing and feelings as healthy and positive and the best thing they could be doing in that moment. It’s very freeing, right? Once we get that.

And if we’re not getting that, it can help to look at… what’s getting in our way? Am I afraid my child’s not going to like me or love me if I have a different point of view? If I say no?

All this really is is being able to set boundaries, like my friend asking for a raise. “This is what works for me.” But in this case we really are in charge.

So this mom says, “Perhaps I just need to level up my patience.” No, it’s not about patience. Patience, I think in this case means I’m getting sucked in, and I’m having patience with you trying to change my mind, and me trying to follow you on that trail. And no, they don’t need patience. They need bravery from us, acceptance, and boundaries.

I hope that helps.

Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio at Audible, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you so much for continuing to share all your wisdom, Janet. I have a 7-month-old and have implemented RIE the best I can…it’s truly an amazing approach. Even my husband who thought it was kooky when I told him about it while I was pregnant (so I just decided to model it for him and stop sending articles), I now hear in the bedroom saying to our son, “I’m going to take your shirt off now…over the head!” as he undresses him for bed, or “I’m going to lay you down now…” Our baby is content and knows he’s safe. I was spanked as a child and would have been spanked if I were this boy asking for his minute, so your blog helps so much with the everyday situations where I need somewhere else to turn besides my own life experience. The more I read and practice, the more intuitive RIE becomes. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Wow, that’s wonderful news, Julia! Music to my ears. Thank you so much for sharing with me! Passing this approach along is my pleasure.

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