Have you ever tried to diet? Usually you start off motivated, ready to do what it takes. Eagerness and enthusiasm carry you through the tough moments. The weight starts to come off and you may even reach your goal. But you also realize that cutting back is hard. Really hard.
You call on willpower to stick with it but those chocolate chip cookies make your mouth water. Maybe I’ll have just one. I’ve been so good. I deserve a break.
And that’s how it starts. It’s a slippery slope from there. For most, falling off the diet wagon becomes the inevitable aftermath.
Why does this happen? And what does this have to do with parenting?
When we are born into this world, we are born to want. We are born to grow, to expand, to learn, to become better. We do not come into this world wanting to deprive ourselves.
A baby doesn’t look at something interesting and think “That’s something I need to stay away from.” or “That looks tasty but I’m only going to have a little bit.”
No, they’ll look at that piece of cake or that enticing yellow ball and WANT it. They want to explore, experience, indulge, enjoy. In fact, they may get quite upset if deprived of the opportunity to play, eat, touch, taste.
It is our nature to want.
So when we take away, even with good intentions, it goes against our nature. It goes against that ingrained desire to want more.
Scarcity doesn’t sit well with us. Our core being resists it.
Dieting usually means giving up food we enjoy or putting limitations on a fun night out with friends and family. We don’t have that care-free feeling we have when we’re not counting calories. And because it’s not natural to limit ourselves, our whole being resists it. It throws a temper tantrum and its whining wears you down until eventually you cave.
So what does this have to do with parenting?
Have you ever tried to cut back on the amount of TV your child is watching? What about limiting junk food or snacks? Maybe you’ve wanted to stop using time-outs but can’t figure out how to deal with misbehaviour any other way.
It’s hard. Just like dieting, we’re trying to cut something out. We’re going in with the plan to eliminate or reduce. The very idea conflicts with who we are deep down. It goes against our innate desire to want.
We resist it. Our kids resist it.
I have moms telling me:
My daughter watches WAY too much TV but I don’t know how to change that. She always asks for it, it’s become a habit, and how do I keep her entertained while I’m dealing with the baby?
My son eats a lot of junk food. I know it’s too much but he needs to snack because he doesn’t eat his lunch. Then he’s hungry an hour later so I give him a snack. I don’t want to deprive him when he’s hungry.
I’d love to stop using time-outs but I don’t know what else to do. hate using them but they work.
In each of these scenarios, the plan is to eliminate. That is the focus.
Eliminating junk food.
When we plan to eliminate, we often see it as an all or nothing. We think we need to go from 6 hours of TV a day to no TV ever, or eating junk food regularly to zero junk food.
Instead of the all or nothing, black and white, stark contrast, what if we saw it as more of a sliding scale – A sliding scale where we could gradually move from scarfing down insane amounts of junk food to preferring healthy snacks?
If you try to sprint the marathon you won’t make it to the finish line. However, if the goal is to get to the finish line and there’s no rush, then you can walk. It’ll take you longer but you’re sure to get there. Plus, you’d be able to enjoy the scenery along the way, arrive happy and maybe even want to keep going.
If the goal is simply to get to the finish line and there’s no rush, then the method can change. You still have the route mapped out, you know the way, and you’re going to get there. You know that.
Rather than trying to eliminate what you don’t want, you can take the time to add what you do want.
It’s a subtle shift in mindset that is extremely effective. You are far more likely to succeed because you are aligned with your innate desire to want.
Before turning on the TV, add one more activity first. Pull out the markers and a colouring book. Read a story. Do a puzzle. Pick one. Do it. Watch TV.
Once that becomes easy, add a second activity. Now when your child wants to watch TV, you add one activity. When that is finished then you come up with a second. Once that is complete, watch TV.
TV time will start to reduce but the focus has shifted to adding rather than subtracting, which makes it’s more sustainable over the long term.
Similarly, if the goal is to reduce junk food then add a healthy snack before indulging in a sugary treat.
If the goal is to eliminate time-outs don’t try to stop cold-turkey. Instead, ask yourself if you’re willing to try one more thing before the time-out. Commit to doing that. Tip: Ask for a hug (often the quickest way to diffuse a situation).
If that works, great. If not, then use the time-out. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Try again next time. Maybe you make a list of 5 things to try before using a time-out.
The key is to add, not subtract.
And there’s no hurry. Slow and steady wins the race.