Fighting Words

 I will be leading a Parenting the Love and Logic Way session this week and during the process of planning, I asked which topics would be of interest. I offered six or eight possibilities and was surprised when I saw the list of chosen topics. Two of their three selections involved handling tantrums and meltdowns. One of the main ways parents put fuel on a meltdown is with fighting words!


Understand that testing our boundaries and challenging our standards is part of being a child. Jim Fay of Love and Logic Parenting puts it this way. Imagine being in a chair in a dark place. You don’t know if you are in a room or on the edge of a cliff. The first thing you want to do is feel your way to the wall and see whether it is sturdy or will crumble when you touch it. If it crumbles, you are going back to that chair. If you find one wall, you will search for a corner and seek out the size and shape of the room. That’s called testing boundaries. It seems normal and natural in his example. As parents, we need to learn to expect our children to find the walls and the edges of what they are allowed to do. They want to know if our words mean anything or not.


We make the first mistake of hearing their test for boundaries as a challenge to our authority. We often make the second mistake of choosing to threaten with a range of punishments as the reasons they should obey. One parent started by threatening that there would be no candy if their child didn’t behave and within a few minutes were threatening never to allow their child out of the house ever again.


Threats aren’t the only way to use fighting words. We can also use what we call a firm tone of voice. The tone isn’t firm, it’s actually threatening also. Everything about our tone sounds like, “If you don’t ___, I’m going to ___!” Criticism or sarcasm also qualifies as fighting words.


In addition to expecting our children to test our boundaries, we need to learn to relax and find a smile instead of sarcasm to use on our children. Never let them see you sweat. If you aren’t rattled by their test, they will know something is wrong! A good Love and Logic “one-liner” will serve you well. I like using, “How sad.” In my mind, that means, “How sad for you; I’m fine.” When your thought process begins with, “this problem still belongs to you” rather than taking it as a challenge to your parental authority, you are on the road to using what Dr. Fay calls, “thinking words” instead of choosing “fighting words.”


So try beginning by expecting your boundaries to be tested. Follow that with a smile and a one-liner that will help keep your cool. Now it’s time to resist the urge to be drawn into a fight because your child wants to follow the wall to the corner looking for the other walls. That’s right. The testing may continue. It’s natural. It’s not a challenge to you, personally. They want to know whether you love them enough to set some limits and whether those limits are firm or will give way when they push on them.


Another way to get your child to think instead of fight is to ask them a question. My favorite is, “Would you like to know what some other kids do in this situation?” Somehow the thinking involved in answering a question requires suspending the fighting words long enough to find that answer. Make sure to give them lame suggestions because there really isn’t any danger that they will be taking one of your suggestions anyway. After all, the goal is to make them think, not give them an easy answer that lets them off the hook.


Fighting words are the enemy, not your precious child. Let your smile help calm your spirit and build your confidence that you are a capable parent who is up to any challenge!

Dr. Crain writes weekly for the Sunday newspaper from his Connecting Fathers and Families ministry.