Q: My 6-year-old son argues with me about everything I tell him to do. He comes up with reason after reason why he shouldn’t have to or can’t, why it’s unfair, or why, at the least, I should help him. I think he’s got some argument disorder. Is there such a thing? In any case, it’s beginning to drive me nuts, up a wall, and over the edge. Is there a solution?
A: Yes, Virginia, there is a solution, and it’s a simple one at that. Best of all, it’s fail-safe, by which I mean that if you do what I tell you to do without arguing with me, you should be argument-free within a week or less. And I do not have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
First, you need to accept that YOU, not your son, are the cause of these ongoing arguments. You tell him to do something; he begins to present his contrarian case; and you respond as if you are now engaged in a transaction between equals. You attempt to explain to him why he should or can or why you aren’t going to help, as if you are obligated to justify your instructions and decisions to a 6-year-old. In effect, you elevate him to peer status with you. More accurately, you descend to peer status with him. Either way, you abdicate your authority. Your son is only taking advantage of an opportunity you are presenting to him. That is his inalienable human right.
You may also be providing explanations along with the instructions you give him. Explanations, which came into vogue in the 1970s, invite contentious engagement. It’s one thing to tell a child to wear long pants to church. It’s another to explain why long pants are appropriate church attire. Explanations always sound persuasive rather than authoritative. As such they provoke push-back, as in argument.
When people my approximate ancientness were children, the only explanation we ever heard was, “Because I said so.” We heard this because our parents gave simple instructions, sans explanations. “We want you to wear long pants to church,” they said, as opposed to “We want you to wear long pants to church because blah blah blah.” So, lacking explanations, we asked for them. “Why?” we whined, to which our parents said the most dread four words in all of childhood. Some of them added, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” That simply added to the mystery.
That is how to stop arguments. You simply give the instruction in as few words as possible. “It is time for you to pick up your toys,” for example. The child will then ask for an explanation. Don’t be fooled. In that context, “Why?” and “Why not?” are not requests for information. They are challenges to battle. When you answer the child with anything other than “Because I said so,” you step straight into quicksand, and the harder you struggle, the further and faster you sink.
It’s an example of parenting minimalism, defined by my online dictionary as “using a few very simple elements to achieve maximum effect.” Indeed.