Q: It is nearly impossible to get my 5 1 /2-year-old boy to cooperate with our plans on the weekends, whether it be a family hike or a birthday party. Even if I get the whole family wanting to stay home and relax, he’ll still pick fights with everyone, especially his 7 1 /2-year-old sister. What’s an outdoor-loving family to do?
A: I have no idea why your son doesn’t want to go out with all of you, but this is the essential question, right? Why would he prefer to sit at home and fight with his sister? Why doesn’t he like hiking? “Why” is the question that will always lead us to what we parents can do (or not).
One interesting point captured my attention: You (or the rest of the family as well as you) place a high value on being outside. I noted this because it is common to have three-fourths of a family love an activity while the other person hates it. There are a couple of reasons for this: No. 1, hating something that everyone else loves is the quickest way to get attention. Remember, children will do anything to belong in a family, be it positively or negatively. Although it feels miserable that your son is holding everyone captive in the house, he is getting lots of attention.
Another reason that one family member might dislike an activity that the other family members love is that (and this is the simplest reason) the person doesn’t jibe with that hobby. Every person has different preferences. And although American culture doesn’t like to think of children as having preferences, they do! Children are allergic to being coerced into activities that they aren’t intrinsically interested in, even to the extent that they will refuse to try something new. It is maddening, but it is how humans are.
So is your son refusing your activities because he is getting so much attention for being contrary? Or because he doesn’t like to hike? Is it a combination of both?
My spidey sense tells me that he is in a loop of refusing the activity; being begged, cajoled and threatened to do the activity; and finally seeing you give up only to have him annoy his sister (another attention-getting behavior). I am not sure that this has anything to do with whether he is outdoorsy.
How can you improve this situation?
1. Reframe this as a connection problem, not a behavior problem. Changing your perspective will help you have more empathy for your son. He is connecting to the family by being difficult and contrary. Write a note that says, “He doesn’t want to be like this,” and hang it wherever you (not he) can see it. He doesn’t want to hold the family hostage; he just needs another way to interact. (And, psst, as parents, this is our job.)
2. Because this is a connection issue, give him a voice that helps him feel seen and heard. Hold family meetings where you can discuss the weekend events in a more civilized manner. The meeting can begin with everyone sharing something about their day or something for which they are grateful. This is not a time to be prescriptive. I have run family meetings where no good news is shared, and even though it is annoying to sit there, I do. The point of the meeting is to listen and make eye contact, not say just the right thing. After you have these meetings a couple of times, you can make an announcement like this: “Hey, I have this jar here. We are each going to write down the activities we would like to do on the weekend. Every weekend, we will pick a slip from the jar and do it.” You can place whatever rules you want on this, such as cost or travel time. You can also talk about what you will do if it’s raining and the activity is a bike ride. Help your son write his choices and don’t judge them. When the weekend comes, pick an activity and do it.
3. Which brings us to another point: Get ready for your son to have a fit when his slip of paper doesn’t get chosen. In fact, you may want to pick the activity on a Sunday night so he has the whole week to mentally prepare for it. Your son may rage, throw himself on the ground, refuse to go, cry, you name it, but you are going to simply listen and nod. I know, this sounds impossibly hard, but it is such a disservice to your son (and your family) to allow him to dictate your weekends. Unless you are picking truly torturous activities, there is no reason that he cannot participate. Our parental job is not to get him to love being outside or love what you love. Our job is to help him adapt to the challenges of his life, and this is going to carry a great deal of tears with it.
4. If a hike is planned, you get him there, and he grumbles through it, please quietly and lovingly connect with him about it later. For instance, my 13-year-old daughter could spend all of her days shopping and looking at clothes. My 9-year-old? Not so much. So when I drag my 9-year-old all over the mall for two hours, I check in later that night, high-five her and say: “I know today was super-boring. Thanks for hanging in there. You rock.” She always smiles and gives me a thumbs up.
I am not trying to make her love shopping. I am simply saying to her: “Hey, I see you. I know you. Thank you.” Doesn’t every human want to, as Dan Siegel says, “feel felt?” After a long day, just let your son know that you appreciate his efforts.
5. Finally, don’t make being outdoor-loving your family’s dominant value. Yes, of course, do what you love and include the children, but keep an open mind for other hobbies, likes and dislikes to take their place in the family. It is a wonderful gift to our children if they can feel free to try many things.
Good luck! Remember: connection!