when should you give in to your kids

the one thing you should absolutely always give into as a parent

When should you give in to your kids? Ever? Never? Here’s the scenario:

It’s five minutes past the drop-dead moment for getting in the car and getting everyone to the right place at the right time. I’m running on fumes fueled by the insanity of needing to bring a show-and-tell item that starts with the letter X, AND the fact that the lunchbox absolutely never makes it into the house from the car. 

It is at this moment that I say as sweetly as possible, “Please get your shoes on,” and I know even as the words  are coming out of my mouth that I am asking for something basically impossible. 

Getting shoes on to go to school has been a struggle since the invention of shoes, at least for this four-year-old. We have all agreed that getting his shoes on is something he CAN do, but his motivation game to get it done is not strong. And, so, the plan is to help him to have the motivation to do his shoes on his own and have the consistency to not let him get out of it with circus level antics. 

This is the plan. I love a plan. 

The minute the words come out of my mouth, he is already writhing on the floor in ridiculousness. This is when I am supposed to hold fast, insist that he is capable, give him good reinforcement for doing the right thing, and not let him escape. This. Is. The. Plan. 

I count to three and say, “Honey, today I am going to help you do this,” and I swoop in and put his shoes on for him. So, basically, I cave just as fast as possible. Completely crater. Give in to my kid like the padding in my ten-year-old nursing bras. 

And I don’t feel bad about it…not one little bit. I know I don’t have time to follow through. We are out of time. The clock wins the day and I know that I can’t hold out until he decides to get his shoes on of his own volition. So, rather than threaten and cajole and finagle and then give in, I just GIVE IN IMMEDIATELY. 

The only rule about parenting...there are no rules!

So…when should YOU give in to your kids?

When should you give in to your kids? When you’re up against a clock like I was! Behavior science tells me why this is a good idea. It’s the concept of intermittent reinforcement, which just means that while sometimes I reward a certain behavior, sometimes I do not. It’s the opposite of continuous reinforcement which would be giving a reward every time a behavior occurs. 

In this scenario, I have reinforced my son’s writhing behavior by waiting until he bordering on apocalyptic and then helping him with his shoes cause I just can’t take it anymore. Uh oh. This teaches him that if he just gets ridiculous enough, I will eventually give in. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. Nine times out of ten, I am a stalwart. I wait until he is ready to put his shoes on and help to understand that it is part of his job as a mature four-year-old to participate in this process. But, one time out of ten, I give in and that’s just enough to keep the ridiculous behavior around. 

By the way, this is the same way gambling works. Slot machines don’t pay out every time. They don’t even pay out even one of seven times, but they do pay out one of 10 times and that intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep us pumping the machine full of quarters. 

Intermittant reinforcement is wicked powerful. It makes it virtually impossible to get rid of bad behavior. As long as there is the possibility that the behavior is going to pay off, it is going to keep happening. If it’s a bad behavior, that’s bad news. 

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t pee a little bit every time I sneeze and parents would be able to follow through consistently every single time. But, clearly, this is not a perfect world. It is not possible to consistent every single time. 

When it’s not possible to follow through, either because of the situation or the timing or whatever: give in immediately. Let me say that again: give in immediately. 

The reason this works is because it teaches your child that escalating their behavior does not result in you changing your mind. You immediately give in and they do not have to escalate. In the future, when I have time, I will be consistent in requiring that he put on his own shoes and he will recognize the difference between stand-her-ground mom and -give-in-immediately-mom. 

So, when should you give in to your kids? It’s simpler than you think. If you can’t follow through, give in immediately. And nursing bras should be retired when nursing is over or before they reach a decade of age. And show-and-tell for the letter X is just parent cruelty. 

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When should you give in to your kids? It's not a trick question: there ARE times when it's best to immediately give in. We'll tell you when and how!

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