Lines In the Sand

Your children can challenge you to draw a line in the sand so quickly that you are often caught off guard! While minding your own business, doing the dishes or watching television, your child walks in the door and asks to go somewhere. You express the slightest hesitation and the battle lines are drawn! “You never want to take me anywhere!” they exclaim, and stomp into the other room.

Battle lines can also be drawn when we ask for things that seem reasonable and easy to accomplish. “Could you pick your toys up from the walkway in the living room, please?” you ask. “I don’t want to and you can’t make me,” she answers. If the hair on the back of your neck isn’t standing straight up by now, you might want to check your pulse.


The way we answer these challenges as parents sets a tone that will follow us throughout their teenage years! Choose carefully.


The first mistake we make involves the assumption that we can treat our children with disrespect in order to teach them to treat us with respect. Shouting a command and an accusation may be tempting but will not gain their cooperation or teach them respect. Rather than say, “I TOLD you to pick up those TOYS!” with urgency and a twinge of threat laced in, try asking, “Did I ask you nicely to pick up your toys?”


Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy, you say? Where’s the parental authority in such a question? Where’s the teaching that a child must do what they are told?


It’s not the first line in the sand where these battle lines are truly fought. When we issue threats or ultimatums we generally lose the battle AND the war. While it is true that asking whether our child noticed that we asked for their cooperation in a nice way gives them the feeling that they won the battle, it won’t be long before they need our cooperation. “I need a ride to practice,” they say on another day. This is the real battlefield! It’s a great time to say, “I give rides to people who treat me with respect.” Follow that with, “The other day, you taught me that asking nice doesn’t always gain cooperation; so I won’t be taking you the practice this time.”


Blackmail, you say? Not at all. There is no threat, intimidation or ultimatum. We simply explain the conditions under which we will cooperate with our children. By doing so, we lay the foundation for a return to the original line we refused to draw in the sand. The next time they want to refuse our requests or stomp around instead of being cooperative, we can ask nicely again and see whether they learned their lesson.


Combining respectful communication from parents with firm actions that teach the lesson later is a one-two punch that can’t be missed. Getting down on their level with begging, pleading or threatening only teaches them to behave in ways that are disrespectful and challenging of authority.



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