Hidden Messages

My Kid, the Lawyer Wannabe Excerpt

She opened with a question. “Mom! What are we having for dinner?”

“Well, hello to you, too, honey,” Judy said with a chuckle, leaning over to press a kiss on Jennifer’s cheek. “We’re having fish.”

“What kind?” asked Jennifer, chin raised in suspicion.

“Cod,” warily answered Judy. She knew the prosecution would begin straightaway.

Jennifer peered down her nose into the pan. “And how are you making it?” she inquired.

“I’m baking it. With lemon and seasoning,” Judy replied, trying to sound nonchalant about her gourmet cooking skills.

“But Mom,” Jennifer’s voice reflected the grimace on her face. “You know I HATE it that way! . . . Don’t you?”

Judy had to admit: the kid was good. But Judy held her own, patiently explaining that it was the family’s favorite. To which Jennifer responded, “But why can’t you just bread a few pieces for me?”

“Because,” Judy began, “it takes too much time and effort for the one small piece you’ll manage to eat.” Motion denied.

“Well, it can’t be that difficult!” wailed Jennifer. “Why don’t you just…”

“Jennifer! Stop with the fish already!” Judy interrupted. “It’s garbage day. Please collect the trash and take it out while I’m making dinner.”

“Why do I have to do it every time?” huffed Jennifer.

“It’s your job,” Judy countered over her objections.

“But it’s been my job forever,” pleaded Jennifer. “I don’t see why Jason can’t do it.”

Judy calmly listed Jason’s jobs and explained that he, too, had responsibilities.

Jennifer was not appeased by the alibis presented on Jason’s behalf. “Taking out the garbage for the whole family is just asking too much. It’s smelly and heavy and icky. I’d much rather sweep the kitchen floor. I think it’s time that we switched jobs.”

“I’ll think about it,” responded Judy distractedly, her fatigued head taking a little unscheduled adjournment.

“Well, why can’t you think about it right now?” hammered Jennifer.

“Because I’m making dinner right now.”

“So, you can’t make dinner and think at the same time?” asked Jennifer.

Judy closed her eyes, her hands going limp on the counter. Objection! She paused to restore order in the court that had taken over her kitchen, then looked over at Jennifer. “Will you just take out the trash and let me make dinner?”

“But you didn’t answer me! Why can’t we talk about this now?”

“Jennifer, please. Just do it.”

Jennifer, never ready to concede a case, shouted, “I’m sick and tired of taking out the garbage!”

Judy, her patience at its end, yelled back, “I don’t care! Just do the job!”

Jennifer’s volume also increasing, she bellowed, “I DON’T WANT TO!”

Judy slammed down the spoon she’d been holding. “I don’t care what you want, young lady! Take that trash out!”

Jennifer recognized her Mother’s danger zone, knew she’d be held in contempt soon if she didn’t back off. She roughly grabbed the kitchen trash (into which Judy was still tossing fish remnants) and stomped out of the kitchen, mumbling something about a dictatorship and unfairness on her way out.

The Hidden Message

“It takes two to argue, and I’m ready whenever you are!”

Think About It  

If you have a child like Jennifer, and you’re constantly frustrated with her, it’s time for an exercise a wise old teacher once described: point your index finger in the classic way, and check out the three fingers now pointing back at you. In other words, you need to acknowledge and take responsibility for your own argumentative behavior before you attempt to correct your child’s. Every time you rationalize, explain and bicker with a child who is willing to deliberate every point, you give her more and more leeway in which to plead her case.

Consider the question a famous philosopher posed long ago—you know the one—that begins with, “If a tree falls in a forest…” and adapt it to Judy’s situation. If a tree argues with another tree that doesn’t argue back, is there indeed an argument?

Changes You Can Make 

If you really want your child to stop arguing with you, give her less feedback when she begins her dispute process. Shut it right down by stating your case in a firm, authoritative manner—and then being quiet. Ignore the ensuing argumentative comments or simply repeat your original request. If you‘re too tempted to argue back then walk away for a few minutes and promise yourself you won’t let this issue turn into a two-way argument. Teach your child that your word is final. Realize that, when you do this, your very vocal child will have to complain a bit. But when you fail to respond to her, these arguments turn into harmless mumbling.

A different option is to change the tiring process of ‘arguing’ into a more productive mode of ‘debating’. The idea here is to adopt and enforce the standard rules for formal debate. Since some children really do enjoy the give-and-take of a debate, you can encourage this process—which is healthy and instructive in the right context—by setting limits. Let your child know which issues can and can’t be debated. Have a standard reply for a non-negotiable issue such as, “This is not open for discussion.” Let her know that raising of voices, name-calling or rude comments will not be accepted or acknowledged, and that each party must be given time to explain a point of view without interruption. To help her understand that these are universally accepted bylaws, show her books that instruct in the fine art of debate. Explain that debating is an extracurricular activity in many fine schools, and that a well-established set of rules governs the highly refined process. Amaze her with the fact that many perfectly sane people pay vast sums of money to learn the intricacies of that very process—in law school. Be sure, however, to show her how the process employed between parent and child differs from a standard court. In the High Court of Home, you are Supreme Court Judge—and you decide which things can be debated and which cannot, when an argument is concluded, and what the final decision will be, regardless of her finesse during the debate process.

One parenting skill that every parent of a Lawyer Wannabe would be wise to master, and use often, is offering choices instead of issuing commands. Kids with a ready answer to every statement often do very well when given a choice. In this story, if Judy would have revised her command —“Take out the trash while I’m making dinner”—into a choice—“Would you like to take out the trash now or after we eat?”—Jennifer may well have done the job without complain, since she has been given some control over her destiny. (If Jennifer concludes that she doesn’t want to do either, you can just smile and respond, “That wasn’t one of the choices. Now or after dinner?”)

Another way to reduce the number of times your Lawyer Wannabe takes on a case is to implement specific routines and rules in your home. As an example, if kitchen clean up and trash removal occurs immediately after the last bite of food is consumed at the table, and homework is done immediately after clean up, then your child will develop routine habits that leave less room for argument. In the same vein, having specific family rules that are agreed to and written down will create specific expectations between you.

A child’s desire to argue with a parent has its roots in the eternal childhood quest for power. And if she can provoke a spirited response from you, and open the floor for an argument between equal parties, she knows she has the power. You can take it away by implementing the procedures described in this chapter. Or you can choose to control how much power she has by setting limits to your debate or by giving her choices; this allows her the sense of control she’s after, while allowing you to retain firm grip on the gavel.

Excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill Publishing from Hidden Messages (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

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