Pick Your Battles


Pick your battles: Know when to hold em and when to fold em

Kenny Rogers said it best: you’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. This certainly applies to raising children and the proverbial “pick your battles” debate among seasoned parents. The big question is how to keep it in balance, and how to choose. Do you ever find yourself asking, ok, "which battles will I have to endure today with this adorable child I am responsible for bringing into this world"? Trust me, I am fully aware there are many temptations to take the path of least resistance. There are many times I’ve been out in public and the biggest thought in my mind is, “who am I going to see here that knows I’m a Behavior Analyst and will see my child melting down because she can’t buy that pink pig that will be the 98th in her collection of stuffed animals?” But research shows us, the long term benefits of giving boundaries, limits, and a consistent message to our children have longer lasting positive effects than that bit of relief we get by caving on a hard issue because we are in public and the ramifications will be embarrassing.

Hold ‘em

It’s not revolutionary (we can usually agree that rules and boundaries are good for kids), but it can be hard to decide how much or how little, how often, and in what situations. Here are a few ideas that may help in deciding what situations require consistency:

1. Promote Safety- Whether it’s “wash your hands after going to the bathroom” or “look before crossing the street,” expectations teach and promote safety in our children’s lives. When stating a rule or expectation, it is often important to ask “is this to keep my child safe or teach them to make safe choices in the future?” If the answer is yes, you will most definitely want to stick to that original expectation or rule even if your little one is not interested in holding your hand when approaching a busy road, because you know this is for their benefit.

Now with this one, I have to throw in my 2 cents on a small issue I have with safety. Children’s safety can often be elevated to an extreme. Fear-based marketing and the prevailing thought that the world is crashing down all around us at any given moment, makes us as parents, crazy. Legit crazy.

We have to keep this in balance. I often have to remind myself and question, how did our parent’s parents keep their children alive 50-some odd years ago? Sheltering our children from experiences or ever feeling pain will prevent them from developing valuable lessons and characteristics such as independence and resilience. So while safety is an important place to start, I have to complicate the discussion by suggesting a balance here (it wouldn’t be a parenting topic if it wasn’t complicated).

2. Create Order- Sameness provides order and predictability to a confusing, and sometimes chaotic world. Parents who provide a consistent framework for daily living (i.e., schedules, rhythm, chores), create a safe environment for children to learn all the things they should be learning in a day. If a child doesn’t have an ordered, consistent world as a basis to start with, their daily functioning and learning experience can be greatly affected.

Kids feel successful when the rules don’t change. We teach this by providing consistent responses. When kids can understand systems and the proper way things work, they can make their own choices that fit within these boundaries. Kids feel a sense of control and competency they make their own choices and are reinforced socially for these behaviors (“Wasn’t it great how you and Johnny got along so well together, today? It must have been because you were sharing your toys so well”).

3. Teach children to be decent human beings- Decent human beings treat others with love and respect and are not afraid of differences or diversity. Decent  human beings smile and hug and find the good in others. Decent human beings see injustice in the world and do their part to make the world a better place to live. We could go on and on here, right? The gist is, we are not asking for perfection or prom queens and prom kings; instead, do our children know how to treat others, how to handle conflict, and make choices that will better to world? When we are towing the line on a rule or expectation, is it because it is teaching integrity and decency? Or are we worried about our image, name, or reputation in the community (school, church, social circles)? The endless life lessons and boundaries that seem useless at times, are teaching kids how to make decisions with integrity and to do the right thing when no one is watching.  When I might be tempted to “fold ‘em” on a hard issues, it may be a larger life lesson that helps me decide this is important enough to develop my child’s decency.

Fold ‘em-

Full disclosure,  I am not an expert in “folding my cards” and honestly, it’s my understanding that it takes more courage to “fold ‘em” in the right moments than to hold ‘em in the wrong moments (to save our ego or not admit we were wrong about something). This is something I am always working on and trying to get better at. But in the meantime, I have 3 reasons or situations that pop-up that require grace and for us to be the “bigger person” in the relationship.

1. Annoying behavior- Kids are masterful “most-annoying-sound-in-the-world” makers. They can beat any parrot in the repeating game. And the amount of incessant requests throughout the day are enough drive a pool boy to quit his day job. It’s true, there’s little we can do to lessen the level of "annoying" we have to endure at times, but truth is, we often find ourselves over-correcting or placing boundaries on certain behaviors that are simply annoying. As parents, it’s our jobs to distinguish the difference. In-the-moment questions (to ourselves) can help: “Is this an (extremely) annoying behavior or is this a safety, necessary issue that needs to be addressed?

2. Mistakes- Teach kids that mistakes are normal and a healthy part of life. Be transparent about the mistakes that you make. When our kids make mistakes, it is helpful to point them out (if necessary) with a “no-biggie” attitude as to not let our kids dwell on their failures. Don’t be quick to provide solutions but talk them through ideas on how to solve their own problems.

3. For no reason at all- Did you ask yourself, are they safe, is there some semblance of order, and is my child behaving like a decent human being? Then perhaps if you can’t find a reason outside of these three to redirect or correct the behavior, then don’t. In the very least, perhaps we ask questions. Asking our kids questions about why they make certain choices can often provide surprising insight as to how our kids think.

We are going to make mistakes, we are going to feel like failures and at the end of the day and if we are lucky, we get to sleep it off and try again when the next day. The one thing that is always true, is, you were not gifted a handbook for parenting, but with collaboration, a supportive village, self-awareness, parenting breaks, and good coffee, you will make it and you’ll learn from your kiddos in the process. You are a work in progress and you got this! We’re cheering for you!

Written by: Josi Garcia is the Co-Founder of ZimZum Consulting Collaboration. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, holds a Masters degree in Special Education, and has experience working with schools and families supporting individuals with special needs.

Photo Credit: Andrew Branch on Unsplash

BehaviorJosi Garcia