How to respond when the wants of parents and children differ is
one of The Big Questions of parenting. Things usually go well when
parents and kids want the same things -- problems start when they
On the one hand, high levels of parental tolerance for and
gratification of child wants are associated with high levels of
child attachment, social competence, positive mood, and
On the other hand, parents have to be in charge. But studies show
that a large proportion (sometimes half!) of all parental control
behaviors with young children are idiosyncratic and unnecessary. The
typical toddler experiences an average of roughly 20 restrictions of
his or her wants per hour. How would you feel if
someone got in the way of your wishes every three minutes,
hour after hour, day by day?
Parental control is generally needed when child pursues a good
goal in a bad way. Examples include pursuing pleasure by eating too
much candy, or trying to learn about the world by sticking a knife
into an electrical socket. The goal is fine, but the methods aren't
In these cases, how about offering an alternative way for the
child to attain the positive goal? For example, if Sam shouldn't
play with your sunglasses (or camera, electrical cords, bread knife,
etc.), you could try to interest him in some other acceptable
object or activity: "Uh-oh, not that buzzsaw again, Sam! Come here
and see these neat blocks. Let's make a tower!"
Or you could change just the problematic element(s) in Sam's
activities so that he can keep going safely (or neatly, quietly,
etc.) with his basic plan. This could include shifting location
(water play outside or in the bathtub), altering some feature of the
object (a big plastic spoon instead of a metal one), or providing a
new target (whacking something other than baby sister's head).
Research shows that offering alternatives to young children is
likely to reduce both non-compliance and fussing. It also teaches
children that their parents (or other caregivers) care about their
wants, and that other options are often available.
The most effective approach to alternatives is generally as
Acknowledge that you know what their (problematic) want is.
This lets a child know that his or her communication has been
received (a good general principle!) and that your alternative
doesn't come out of the blue.
Communicate or do the "control" before offering the alternative
(i.e. remove the knife before offering the spoons
Actively engage the child with the alternative, perhaps by
playing with it yourself.
Alternatives will not work every time. Nor it is not always
appropriate or possible to give an alternative. Sometimes we are
just too tired or otherwise occupied. Depending on the age and
developmental level of your child, you may want to really get across
some point -- especially if the problem is a safety issue -- before
shifting the child's attention to something new. And as kids get
older, they can, will, and need to take more responsibility for
generating their own alternatives.
So even when you try hard to offer alternatives, there will be
plenty of little opportunities for Sam to learn that life has its
limits and he won't always get what he wants. But especially in
early childhood, the emphasis should be on gratifying child
wants (sometimes in an alternative form) and giving children a deep
sense of confidence in themselves and the world.