This is a quote from my dad who probably heard it from someone else. He shared it with me when I was a School Board member and I was fighting for change within the system. His point was to recognize what is and isn’t possible or likely and then focus on what I could win.
This is also great advice in parenting. I really want my kids to follow my rules and respect me. I hate it when they eat in their rooms or they vape or they start a load of laundry and then leave it sitting in the machine for days. It’d be easy to create a rule. No eating in your room. No vaping. All laundry has to be done in a day.
Rules are easy to make. Some are impossible to enforce. How exactly can I enforce not eating in their room? How do I make sure my kid never vapes? What do I do when the washer and dryer are full of their clothes and I need to get my own laundry done?
Do I ground them?
Do I take away their phone?
Do I withhold allowance?
First, I know that the consequence should align with the mistake if it’s to be effective. How does grounding my kid feel like a natural consequence of vaping?
Second, rules and consequences will be unlikely to change their behavior in these examples. Vaping can be addicting, so taking away their phone or car will unlikely lead to them making the decision to quit. They will have to make that commitment when they are ready.
Third, my kids don’t get to process how their decisions impact others and themselves. If they live in a world of rules and punishments, then they aren’t connecting dots. They aren’t buying into making better choices.
Finally, when I try to enforce something I cannot enforce with my kids, I risk denting my relationship with them. I want to have an influence in their lives. To do this, they have to feel connected to me, trust me, and respect me. If I put myself in a position of power, the relationship then becomes a power struggle. If I want my kids to stop bad behaviors, then it is more likely for them to change when they understand the purpose and the impact of their behaviors.
The distinction I make around rules is that I have to get real clear on the ones I can enforce. If my kid needs money from me and they haven’t completed their chores, then I can enforce it. If I find a vape in my house, then I will throw it in the garbage. If they leave laundry unfinished, then it gets tossed into a hamper.
For the things I cannot enforce, then I open up conversations. I get curious. I try to help them connect the dots themselves. I work with them to build their delayed gratification muscles. I guide them into becoming aware of the impacts of their actions. I lead them into owning their decisions and their natural consequences.
What battles might you be fighting that you cannot win? How could you put the relationship ahead of the unwanted behavior?