A: I’m reading and rereading your note and, as usual, there is a world of information I don’t have access to. Because of this, I’m going to try to give the basics of what makes for a more peaceful ending to the day for most families. It’s your job to sprinkle in what your family needs.
My first question is: Why do the boys have to be showered by 6 p.m. to sit down for dinner? I don’t know your family’s needs, but if you have two children of these ages who are in school all day, then asking them to wrap up the afternoon starting around 5 p.m. for showering and chores is a bit of a hard sell. They probably still have energy to play (as demonstrated by the 8-year-old), and the early shower feels as if it flies in the face of their autonomy. By 8 and 10, children can be in charge of their bodies a bit more, which translates into when and how often they shower.
I can hear the parents right now crowing about their dirty children — “He smells and doesn’t even know it!” and “Her hair is so gross!” — and I hear you. I’m not suggesting that parents can’t make suggestions or even try saying, “When you’re showered, we can head out for burgers,” then waiting. Some help and reminders are a part of parenting; however, I don’t understand the formality of showering for dinner. Maybe you grew up in a family where showering for dinner was the expectation, or maybe you started bathing the kids before dinner and have stuck with that routine. In either case, you need to reassess whether your routine is working for your family. And because you wrote to me, the answer is no.
If you look at the data of your situation, what we know is that we have a younger child who doesn’t want to shower and would rather play. This leads to not eating dinner, sneaking food and creating tension. You can either spend time crafting elaborate behavioral plans to get the 8-year-old to shower, sit down, eat and not sneak food, or you can make reasonable changes to your schedule. Because controlling ourselves is the safest bet, other parenting choices are: Stop requesting that the kids shower first, and allow them to play until dinner; have a nice, big, healthy snack after school and push dinner back a bit; or allow some after-dinner food options, such as yogurt or fruit.
As our children grow up and develop, we parents must remain flexible and strong. In my book, “Parenting Outside the Lines,” I liken our parenting stance to marsh grass. It is deeply rooted and strong but utterly flexible up top. To avoid or sidestep unnecessary power struggles, you must zoom out and ask yourself: “Is the boundary I am upholding an important value? Or is it about me and fear?”
By creating boundaries that are about values and not “because I said so,” you stand a great chance of developing with your children; you are rooted and strong where you need to be, and open and flexible when the family calls for it. And that’s the goal, right?
I would suggest calling a meeting and asking your children to help develop a new dinnertime routine. Write down the ideas, create something that works for your family and revisit the plan as needed. If you find a way between “showered and eating at 6 p.m. sharp” and “sneaking food wherever, whenever,” you stand a chance at enjoying the evening with your family. Respecting your children’s needs, desires and opinions is the way forward here. Good luck.
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