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Refuses to Walk to School

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Child Won't Walk to School

How many of you can relate to this email question I received?

“Sam,  Owen and I were on our way to school this morning via toboggan.  I had to ask Sam to hop out because pulling 100 pounds in the snow was proving to be too much of a challenge for me.  Sam finally dug his heals in and sat in a snow bank and refused to move.  He was upset that Owen was being pulled and he wasn’t.  I did explain I understood that it must be disappointing, but he is a much better/faster walker then his brother… and so on.  He still refused to move.

What should I have done?  Everyone was late for school and I felt resentful and frustrated.

Any ideas?”

This is a classic power struggle situation that many parents find themselves in.  A child learns that they can find power in NOT moving.  Their behavior says, “You might be big and able to kick me off this toboggan, but I have weapons to fight with too. I may be small, but I can refuse to walk and then whatcha gonna do Mom?  Ha! I win!”

A power struggle is like being in a tug-of-war.  It is a fight or contest to see who has power. Who will win, and who will loose?  Now that they are fighting, Sam feels if he walks like Mom is urging, he will have lost.  We don’t want our children feeling like losers.   Neither do we want to feel we lost a battle to our children.  That makes us feel like a doormat, and we lose our self-respect.  So long as there is a fight going on, each party is only interested in protecting their position and not losing.

The solution is to end the battle that is based on a win/lose dichotomy of outcomes. Once the “trust” state is accomplished, both parties can work together to solve the problem and find a cooperative, win-win outcome.

Mother must “drop the rope” of the tug-of-war.  Here is how, using my four-step D.R.O.P model:

D – Determine if it’s a power struggle situation (feeling resentful, and the escalation in this example)
R – Revisit the roles and responsibilities of each person (it’s Mom’s job to ensure they get to school safely escorted at this age, but it’s Sam and Owen’s job to be punctual)
O – Offer an olive branch (a sign of peace,  a signal you are not willing to fight, and then be an active listener)
P – Plough on with what YOU need to be doing and leave the child to make their own decisions, allowing them to experience the outcomes of their decisions.  Hold them accountable with out giving them attitude about their choices.

So,  I think “D” and “R” are spelled out clearly here, but let’s look at “0,” which is a skill many parents need training in.

How to Offer an Olive Branch:

Physically: get your  hands off your  hips, take the stitch out of your eyebrow, soften your eyes, move in closer to Sam, maybe squat when you talk and put your arm around him or touch him in a loving way.

Listen: this is a very Stephen Covey thing. “Seek first to understand and then be understood.”  You need to SAY back to Sam what he is saying to you in his whole meta-communication, i.e. his words, actions and body language.  For example:

“It sounds to me like you are really disappointed, eh?”  (The mom said this already, but keep going–you are only on the surface.)
“Does it maybe feel unfair that your brother gets fun and you don’t just because you’re bigger? It’s not like you can help that eh? Is that right ?”
“Are you maybe feeling like that happens a lot?”
“Do you think I am unfairly siding with your brother?”
“Do you think there is a better way and I am not trying very hard to see it ?”

You are trying to get into his head and his world and to prove to him that you see life from his vantage point by saying these things back to him that he can say ” yes” to, or else say, “No, it’s not that.”  You make only guesses and hopefully he’ll let you know when he feels you have understood him.

Once you really think you can grasp his issue, then you can share your perspective on the situation.  This needs to be stated as a joint PROBLEM that needs everyone’s help in finding a solution. It is not an exercise is trying to convince Sam that your solution is best or right.

“So you’d like to get a ride on the toboggan, and I would like to be on time and not hurt my muscles.  What can we do to make that happen?”

Brainstorm solutions together:

  • Take turns with only one on, understanding that you’ll be able to pull him less far, but still some
  • Rveryone walks,  no toboggan
  • Owen rides there and mom and Sam toboggan together on the weekend
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

Then try one of the ideas that everyone can live with….

How to Plough On:  Remember that it is not your job to watch the clock.  Only focus on your job of safe escort.  If you need to sit in the snow bank and wait till people wanna move on, that’s fine–you are doing your job,  but they will have to deal with the school on their late arrival as a result of the choices they have made for themselves.  If you sit in the snow bank secretly wishing Sam would just get moving, he will still perceive your desire for him to change and that alone is enough to keep him entrenched in the power struggle.

NB: only when you are no longer invested in the choices your child makes will the power struggle be dissolved.

If you say you don’t have time for all this, I would argue that you don’t have time not to do this.  You will spend more unhappy fighting hours on more trips to school if the walking battle continues.  However, if you invest the time to resolve the conflict, you’ll re-gain that time and more down the road with cheerful and punctual walks to school. Well worth the upfront time investment, I promise.

If you have had success “dropping the rope,” please share your stories in the comment area.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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