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Ul-ti-ma-tum: A final demand, the rejection of which will result in retaliation or a breakdown in relations.
My daughter has an addiction to monkey bars. The other day I had to haul her off the playground in order to get to dance class on time, then I had to haul her off the bars outside of the dance studio to get to soccer. After soccer it was nearly impossible to find her to attend a potluck, until I remembered to seek out the monkey bars. And then, long past bedtime on a school night, she wriggled out of my grasp like some unnatural Cirque de Soleil performer. Who would have known such contortions were possible? When I finally managed to close the door on the minivan, with her finally, effectively restrained on the inside, I lost it. “That’s it, I am sick of asking you a dozen times to get in the car. I am not taking you anywhere, anymore. No more parties, no more classes, ...”
Somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain was the voice of reason: what are you talking about? Do you really believe these ultimatums are going to make your life any better? No, they are going to make it worse. But I was on a roll, and nothing was going to stop me. Not my daughter bubbling away like a witch’s cauldron in the backseat – utterly shattered by her unexpected misfortune. Not the visual of my son’s face as I gazed in the rear view mirror: one that had the sentiment “I live in a ridiculous family” painted all over it. And certainly not my own voice of reason. I had not been on a roll like this since ...I don’t know when.
Fortunately, my children are still young enough that, following a good night’s sleep, all is forgotten. It’s like living with Anne of Green Gables and Forrest Gump. Every day is a new day, without any mistakes. This good fortune cannot last forever. I am going to have to figure something out before my children start making me pay for my mistakes.
So... is there any upside to the ultimatum? The short answer would appear to be no. But surely there is a place for this ever so alluring parenting device? No. There is not. When you start spewing ultimatums you are essentially throwing a big grown up tantrum. A melodramatic last-ditch attempt to be in control. Soon your children will figure out the truth: that you are not smart enough to negotiate a better solution, and (since often ultimatums are rarely upheld) you are untrustworthy. Is this really what you want? Stop now before it’s too late.
Parents are often encouraged to give their children choices. Do you recognize any of the following? Eat your dinner or you will not be able to have dessert. Go to bed now or you won’t be able to watch TV for a week. Stop hitting your friend or you will not have another play date until you are eight. Are you going to feed the dog or are we taking him to the Humane Society? As if.
These are ultimatums, not choices.
The truth is there is no such thing as a good choice or a bad choice. There are choices that either bring you closer to what you want, or move you further away from it. Yes, some choices are more inconvenient than others, but unless it’s morally or physically dangerous what difference does it make?
If I am really honest about my wee meltdown, it was not that my kids were tired but that I was tired. Had I told my daughter that we needed to go home because I only got two hours sleep last night and I needed to get to bed she may well have said, “Sure Mom let’s go!” or perhaps “Sure you go ahead, I’ll get a ride home with the neighbour.”
Parenting on Track suggested the following:
- Set choices that are a win-win: Blue boots or yellow boots? Skip to the car or run to the car?
- Never give a choice you can’t live with: Stop fighting or we are leaving the grocery store. Can you follow through knowing you don’t have any milk in the house?
- Remain Firm and Kind: Be careful your body language and tone of voice don’t reveal which option you would like your child to choose. If your child knows which one you want him to choose, he will either choose the opposite OR do what you want and miss the opportunity of developing the independent thinking we are talking about.
- Stay Friendly: It’s always easier to be optimistic when you are feeling friendly.
If a choice is not the best option, use another strategy. For older children use a written contract. Negotiate behaviours that you both agree are reasonable and have them decide what the consequences should be: I need to put my dishes in the dishwasher or ...
In order to raise independent, self-confident, thinking children, we have to learn to respect whatever choice our child makes. You don’t want to raise robotic, compliant children. It’s just too dangerous.