Battles worth picking

When to fight and when to switch

When Nicolas Bleakley was three, he became very attached to a pair of red tartan pants. “He wore them to daycare every day for months,” says his mom, Karen, of Dorval, Que. “I tried to draw the line and get him to wear other pants, but it resulted in tears for him and sometimes for me too. Then one day I just decided, ‘Forget it, it isn’t worth a battle,’ and I started to launder the pants nightly.”

Sometimes it’s straightforward. Plaid pants? Not worth the battle. Running into the street? Worth clearing up! You don’t want to take on every little issue because a fight — even if a child complies — is hard on the relationship you’re building together. And it doesn’t teach a kid much. “If parents battle, they’re likely to be in a power struggle,” explains Vancouver family counsellor Laura Bradley. “If we teach kids how to think for themselves and give them opportunities to solve their own problems — and be there to cushion the fall if it doesn’t work out — we’re more likely to end up with kids who are able to make decisions and feel good about themselves.”

Saving your energy has other benefits. “It gives you more leverage for the battles that are worth it,” says Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais. “Your child is more likely to co-operate on issues that are important. It doesn’t mean she won’t oppose you, but it will be less intense and there will be less conflict.”

Read on for some common battlegrounds — and an expert take on which are worth tackling.
THE BATTLE: Food fight
Your preschooler nibbles a birdlike portion. You want her to finish what’s on her plate.

The verdict: Not worth it
“You can’t win a battle like that,” Desmarais explains. “It’s most important that kids learn to recognize when they’re full. And we want to teach kids that food is to be enjoyed — it’s more than just a necessity of life.” 

Truce: Offer healthy choices and let your child decide what to eat. Bleakley used to cajole, plead and beg Nicolas to try (not finish!) everything on his plate. She gave it up when he was about five. With his sister, Sophie, four, the approach has been relaxed. “Now I offer and if they don’t want it, I don’t even talk about it. I have one thing on the table I know they’ll eat and if that’s all they have, fine.”

THE BATTLE: Consumer conflict
Your eight-year-old wants an over-the-top expensive toy. He’s prepared to fight for it.

The verdict: Worth it
Time to start humming that Rolling Stones’ tune “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” As Desmarais says, “Giving kids everything supports the notion that they’re entitled.” It’s not an attitude we want them to take into adulthood. “They grow up not understanding that we earn things. They don’t learn to put off gratification.”

Truce: Offer alternatives — can your kid earn a little money around the house doing a chore you might pay someone else to do (like washing the car) or save up his allowance to contribute?
THE BATTLE: The war room
Your preteen’s bedroom looks like the scene of a horrific house-flipping show — pre-flip. You want it cleaned up.

The verdict: Not worth it
“It can be a relentless Clean up your room, clean up your room…” says Desmarais. “Constant arguments can become the whole focus of your relationship.”

Truce: Remind yourself that it’s your child’s space. Close the door (if it will close) and walk by. It’s reasonable, though, to have a bottom line, adds Desmarais — something like: “My only rule about your room is that we can’t have dirty dishes lying around.”

THE BATTLE: Mess melee
Dishes on the counter, spaghetti on the floor. Somebody ought to pick up.

The verdict: Worth it
Kids should clean up after themselves; it’s part of learning about responsibility and respect. “The child’s bedroom is private space,” says Desmarais, “but in the communal areas he shares with other family members, he has to pick up his own mess so he learns how to live in a community.”

Truce: Let your child know (without nagging or anger) that he needs to put away his dishes before he races off to his buddy’s place. Don’t forget to give him a sincere thanks after.
THE BATTLE: Homework hullabaloo
It’s turning your kitchen table into a nightly battleground.

The verdict: Not worth it
Precious hours with your child can slip away wrangling over math sheets. Still, in the early grades when she’s learning homework routines, be there for encouragement. As she gets older, step back and support her as she learns to manage the work herself (before the tough years of high school). Otherwise she could miss the lessons that come from not getting assignments done: disappointing marks, a grumpy teacher, missed chances for more interesting work.

Truce: “Get on your child’s side and problem-solve together,” suggests Bradley. “Tell her, ‘You’re in school and the deal is you have to do the homework — how are you going to do it?’ If your child suggests she play before homework, try her solution. If it doesn’t work out, talk about other ways to get it done.” Keep up your support role — provide a snack, supplies and a spot to work that suits her needs and is near you or in a quiet place. And be sure to connect with your child — even for just a few minutes — before she hits the books. Says Bradley: “The child needs to know the parent is there for her after she’s been out in the world all day.”

THE BATTLE: Crazy clothes clash
Your kid is in clothes from…Gramma’s attic? With pastel hair to match.

The verdict: Not worth it
“They’re not harming themselves or anyone else,” says Jamie MacSwain, program coordinator at CHANCES Family Centre in Charlottetown. “They get to express themselves, rebel and form an identity that speaks to the world about who they are.”

Truce: Set a reasonable standard. MacSwain advises that you try something like “Sure, dress how you want to as long as your hair and clothes are clean and you’re covered where you’re supposed to be.” If your child’s style is veering toward the inappropriate, talk with her about the role models she sees in magazines and on TV. Ask what she thinks of characters in movies who dress in particular ways, so she can process and explore her own choices. Let your child know what your family values and boundaries are; MacSwain suggests you say something like “In our family, we believe that’s a choice people get to make when they’re adults” or “We need to have kids dressed a little more than that.”
THE BATTLE: X-rated resistance
Your son insists you rent him an adult movie or let him play a mature-rated game (and he adds that everyone else’s parents do).

The verdict: Worth it
You know what’s right for your child — listen to your instincts.

Truce: Explain, with confidence, that the rating means the movie is for adults and you won’t support this demand. Don’t be manipulated into agreeing just to avoid an argument. Desmarais reminds: “Our kids need us to set firm boundaries.”

THE BATTLE: War of the words
You ask your child to turn off the computer and she tells you to shut up.

The verdict: Worth it
Acknowledge that your child is annoyed, but be clear that respect matters — toward you and others.

Truce: If you need time to compose yourself, leave the room. MacSwain says, “In the moment, stay calm and speak for yourself — use an I-statement: ‘I’m not OK with that tone of voice.’ Explain that when she speaks to you, you expect her to do it respectfully.” MacSwain also cautions parents to consider the background of an outburst — check that you always speak respectfully to your child.
THE BATTLE: Bedtime brouhaha
Your kid goes to bed and reads late into the night. He’s grumpy the next day.

The verdict: Not worth it
“Likely he’s not that tired,” says Bradley. “And if he reads for two hours instead of half an hour, what’s the worst thing that can happen?” Bradley reminds parents that around age 12, kids’ brains begin to change and kids become nighttime thinkers.

Truce: Establish a time when the child has to be in his room having quiet personal time — no music, no electronics. If he stays up too late, help him sort out the effects of his decision. “The next night, have a conversation about it,” advises Bradley, saying something like “I noticed you were snappy in the car today. Why do you think that happened?”

THE BATTLE: Friends feud
You’re uncomfortable with your kid’s friends.

The verdict: Kind of worth it
MacSwain says it’s normal for kids to explore and experiment in their friendships. But you have a role to play: “You can help your children sort through important characteristics in peer relationships that are so critical.”

Truce: MacSwain recommends checking in with your child: “Ask how it’s going with his friends and what qualities he likes — somebody funny, smart, cool in some way? If he’s hanging around with a kid who’s bossing him around or getting him into trouble, you might ask, ‘What do you think about that? How does that fit with the kind of friendships you like?’” Be sure to express confidence in your child — that you know he’ll choose friends who are respectful of him and that he will stand up for himself when he needs to.
THE BATTLE: Soccer standoff
Your daughter has danced or played soccer for years, but now that she’s in late elementary school, she wants to give it up. You’re inclined to insist she keep on.

The verdict: Not worth it
If it’s a passion or a talent, she’ll get back into it. Desmarais says it’s common for kids to lose interest around age 13 — a lot is happening in their lives at that age.

Truce: Encourage your child to try something new — anything to keep her active — but don’t insist. “If you insist, you’re bound to get resistance and that will defeat the purpose of keeping your child active,” explains Desmarais. “We can’t look at habits teens have and assume things will be like this forever.”

THE BATTLE: Cold war
The wind is howling. Your kid is on his way to the bus stop — coatless.

The verdict: Not worth it
“Never battle about the coat!” says Bradley. “Kids don’t get sick from not wearing a coat. The natural consequence will take care of it — they’ll feel cold and eventually put on that coat.”

Truce: If you can stow a jacket in your son’s cubby or locker, he can slip it on and be comfortable — without the discomfort of admitting that you were right. Bradley stresses, “You want to think, ‘How can I recoup this situation without my child having to lose face?’ — especially when it’s just before the teen years.”

Not sure whether it’s worth the battle?

Our experts suggest you ask yourself these key questions:
• Could my child get hurt himself or harm someone else?
• Is it a control issue? Do I just want her to do as I say?
• What’s the lesson in this — what can he learn here?
• How can I let my kid know I’m on her side? What questions can I ask to encourage her to think it through herself?