A Non-Expert’s Guide to Influencing Children

I have three children: 4 1/2 year old twin boys and a 6 year old daughter. As much as I’d like to say that I have unlocked the formula to present children worthy of luncheon at Downton Abbey, it’s not really that simple.

At church the other day, one of my twins staged a sit-in demonstration. He masterfully recruited his twin brother. They would not go into his class. They wouldn’t budge. And outside of creating a loud scene, I was out of ideas.

I decided to just go inside the class myself and sit and wait. My two sweet boys were standing outside the class. I was sitting inside the class. Eventually twin two came in and sat with me and started coloring.

I went outside to check on twin one (the main conscientious objector) to find one of the teachers speaking to him: “Would you like to color?”(shakes head “no”) “Would you like to play with cars?” (shakes head “no”) “Would you like to build with the blocks and knock it down?” (shakes head “no”).

Finally: “Would you like a hug?” (nods head “yes”).

He went in with her. I left to go to church. I heard a small outburst as I left and paused around the corner to see if anybody was running after me. Nobody was. He was in the class. He’d be fine.

Control vs. Influence

My point there is not to share the common story of a four year old child and separation anxiety. There’s nothing novel about that.

I got frustrated because I couldn’t control my child. Four years old can be difficult, but what about 14? I shudder to think about it.

But I really don’t want control.

I want was what his teacher demonstrated: influence.

She got on his level. She spoke gently to him. She showed empathy. She truly did care about him. She persisted.

We fret so much about being in control, especially as parents. We want our children to be a blessing to others. We want them to enjoy doing the right things we ask them to do and not have opinions (especially when that opinion prevents the family from getting to an appointment on time). We don’t want to be the parents whose kids go crazy at Target.

The fact is, though, that short term control sacrifices long term influence. Influence is a much more coveted prize. It’s also a lot more difficult to develop.

What Influence Requires, Even for 4 Year Olds

Influence requires a few things…

  1. Love: Obvious, it seems, but the heart of control is selfishness while the heart of positive influence is love. Am I trying to accomplish this result because I’m tired, angry, lazy, or selfish, or am I trying to accomplish it because I know that, in time, this will serve the whole family, others, and my child?
  2. Limits: Limits must be clear, unmoving targets. They might change from time to time, but they can’t shift to fit our moods. Limits, whether our children know it or not, make them feel safe. Even at the church, if I had given in, my boy might have been happy for a moment, but does it not chip away at his respect for his dad’s ability to handle a difficult situation? We have to have limits and stick to them.
  3. Clear, desired outcome: What is the outcome I’m seeking? In the case of my boy at church, we want him to know that we’re a family and there are times when we each have to serve the others by doing something we might not want to do. We also know that he benefits from being around children other than his twin brother, so it’s good for him socially. My clear outcomes: Unselfish generosity, even when it’s slightly painful. He needs to be with other children. My wife and I need to be in service.
  4. Empathy: Love is the motivator; empathy is the tool. While there is some debate on whether it’s important for kids under a certain age to be ‘reasoned’ with, there shouldn’t be any debate about whether a child deserves to be heard. Hearing how a child feels will typically not be reasonable, but it will be vital. He admitted the following weak that he gets scared to go in. He also admitted that he always has fun.
  5. Persistence: I could have given up (outside chance I have at times). I was frustrated and very close to taking them into church with me and try again next week. But I knew that while I can’t control them, I also cannot allow them to control the family. I had to be persistent, patient, loving, and even creative.
  6. Personal Consistency: This is moral authority. There’s no direct connection to the church situation, but over time, the most powerful source of influence is personal character. “Do as I say” pales in comparison to “Do as I do.”

I’m not an expert. I’m just a parent trying to figure it out. But I do believe that over time making the more difficult choice will pay huge dividends. The wonderful thing is that though it may be hard, it actually could be more simple.

Making clear, consistent choices when our children are 4 years old, I can only assume, will  give us the best possible chance for when they are 14. There are no guarantees of course, but hopefully it’ll pay off.

What helps you in having positive, healthy influence in your children’s lives?

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