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What You Can’t See Beyond The Brick Wall of ‘Can’t’ Don’t and Won’t’…

Whether it’s using their manners, taking responsibility for their own stuff, or communicating their needs effectively, many of the skills that our children need to master can be hard won, even at the best of times.

However, when they then stop making progress, or even regress, it can present a whole new level of frustration.

Have they forgotten everything you’ve told them?

Can they just no longer be bothered?

Are they choosing to be difficult?

Or are you just talking to yourself?

We’re so accustomed to the one-directional journey of childhood, that it can be irritating at best; often disarming, sometimes deeply worrying; when that nice upward trajectory starts to wobble.

But as an adult, how many of us have forgetful episodes; who hasn’t walked into a room to emerge 10 minutes later having completely negated what you went in there for?

How often do we just wake up feeling like ‘I can’t be bothered’, and be even less bothered by the time we go back to bed?

As for choosing to be difficult, we can all fall foul of that.

And do we listen to everything everyone else tells us?
Especially our kids… Who doesn’t occasionally nod along for effect, while thinking your ears might actually start bleeding if they don’t stop talking soon?

I’m not saying that we should just do nothing about these bends in the road but ‘AM I TALKING TO A BRICK WALL?’ can be gasket-popping-inducing.

So when faced with a backwards step, an ‘age and stage’ you thought you’d put behind you, here’s a few other perspectives to consider…

Have they forgotten everything they’ve learned?
Not necessarily… The human brain hasn’t evolved significantly for over 100,000 years.
Yet the information that we force into them has. There’s a good reason why we need lists.

And anyway, the process involved in ‘remembering’ is quite different from your brain being so well practiced that your thoughts, actions and behaviour patterns become autopilot.

Don’t believe the hype that new habits are formed in 20 repetitions of even in a week.
At a neurological level, this kind of change can take months or even years of mastery, and all kinds of factors determine how effectively this happens.

One of the monkeys that often gets in the way is stress; for children that can mean school pressures, worries about fitting in or being ‘good enough’, adrenaline-inducing devices through which they consume far more of their lives than Mother Nature intended.

Stress can eat short term memory, and totally disable focus and concentration.

But bear in mind that the stress response; i.e. fight/flight; in our brains doesn’t do ‘thinking’. Any brain can register ‘stress’ without an obvious stressor, or the conscious feeling of stress.

Can they just no longer be bothered?
Maybe not right now, or not today. It doesn’t mean forever.

Motivation is complex; is it a personal trait, or can it be taught and learned? A bit of both probably… But it has to be there, somewhere.

This isn’t fixed, but we all tend to be either ‘extrinsically motivated’; i.e we like validation from others, external rewards – for a child this might mean treats or stickers on a chart – or ‘intrinsically motivated’; the driving force comes from within.

Working out which way your child leans can give you a few insights…

An internally motivated child isn’t going to submit to bribes, or even threats very readily, so don’t try. Find out what puts in their belly and lead with that.

And brain chemistry can also play a massive part. It’s constantly changing according to the environment the child is responding to; ongoing or unanticipated stressors, quality of sleep, relationships etc.

All of these can profoundly impact the beast that is motivation and self-discipline, so tune into your child when they’re struggling to get into gear.
What else is going on (or not) that might be playing a part?…

Are they choosing to be difficult?
Maybe, maybe not. Usually not.
But it can certainly feel that way when your energy, time and commitment to their development seems fruitless. Even more so when it’s under-valued and under-appreciated.

But if your child is ‘being difficult’, it’s often not about you, it’s about them.
Because it’s very normal and healthy; albeit not easy for us as grown-ups; for them to test boundaries and limits.
It’s all part of discovering and reinforcing their own sense of influence and control, or determining that this space is as safe and well-protected as you say it is.

I’m not suggesting we raise little anarchists, but I do think the whole world needs to seriously re-think the notion that children grow up under the authority of grown-ups.

We are raising our kids in a world which presents all manner of ‘power pitfalls’; especially to the young and naive.
Extreme they may be, but the realities of online grooming, of criminal or sexual exploitation etc., mean that our kids -and the adults they become – should have unwavering faith that they’re the masters of their own ship and steering their own course.

Being unquestioningly compliant and obedient won’t serve them in the long-run.
For the sake of our own sanity if nothing else, let’s remember that it’s not our children’s job to make life easy for their adults (as nice as it would be).

So let’s embrace their strength of will, honour their right to make their own decisions and to say ‘no’, and nurture their capacity to go against the grain.

Are you just talking to yourself?
Probably not. Keep remembering that ‘learning’ is far more than merely ‘remembering’.
Changing a habitual behaviour means re-programming long-established attitudes and beliefs in the brain… ‘unlearning’, not just learning.

And about this listening thing… Let’s be really honest.
How many times have we feigned a half-hearted ‘wow’ when our children have animatedly recited, in microscopic detail, something VERY exciting to us?

How often do we either have no idea what they’re going on about, or not really care that much?

Have you never gritted your teeth through something you’ve heard a zillion times already, or simply been too pre-occupied with your own thoughts and ‘to-do’ lists to meaningfully engage?

And that’s ok sometimes. We’re human. But our kids are too.
So let’s not hold them to higher standards than we place upon ourselves.

Kids carry an unfair burden of adults’ expectations and demands that they ‘grow up’. But as Tom Stoppard said, a child’s purpose is not to grow up.
A child’s purpose is to be a child.

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