Q: My son is 7, and basically every day we argue with him about getting dressed. He often asks us to dress him, which of course we don’t do. Every night when he brushes his teeth and goes to the bathroom, he asks for or demands company in the four minutes it takes to complete those tasks. When he takes a bath, he wants “company.” Finally, at night, when we leave the room after putting him to bed, he tells us that he’s lonely. He is an only child. We have play dates, and he is social and independent at school and happy in and out of school. We play with him when we’re home as well. He also plays well by himself. The problem is that we don’t always have time to keep him company in the bathroom, and we’re tired of arguing with him about getting dressed every single day. Please help!
A: What a question. Thank you for sending it. When I read this, it sounds as though you are in a hostage situation! Your son, who I am sure is darling, is running the show. He is calling the shots for his clothing, bath time and bedtime routines. You must be exhausted.
So I am going to give you some advice that flies in the face of what you think is reasonable. (That’s how I roll.)
I want you to go ahead and do these tasks for him, whether you want to or not. Yes, I am asking you to say to him, “Harold, I cannot wait to dress you!” “Oh, Harold, I am staying in this bathroom whether you like it or not. Let’s get those teeth brushed! I am doing it.” Take every task and flip it from a “No” or a “You are a big boy who can do this yourself” to “I love being in here with you!”
What is the reasoning here? We are using a technique that developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls “trumping the need.” This means that when your child is constantly requesting and demanding and bossing you around, he is in control. He is in charge of how and when you are parenting him, which is where your resentment comes in. Standing in the bathroom isn’t the problem; it’s that you are in control of your own child.
So trumping the need means that you, the parent, are the one who calls the shots. You are going to take back the decisions and assume you know what he needs.
You may even go a little overboard with it. For instance, if you are dressing him, you can also insist that you put on his shoes and socks. It doesn’t matter what he can or cannot do for himself. This is about taking back the power.
Why am I recommending this technique? Because when a 7-year-old is in charge of the family dynamic, it seldom gets better. The child keeps pushing, resisting, demanding and becoming more prescriptive. This is not the natural order of a family. It is a loving act when we take back the reins. The act says to the child: “Relax. You don’t have to work so hard for my love or attention. I got this. I got you.”
And contrary to what many people may think, this is not spoiling. Spoiling is giving in to demands and commands (what is happening now). When you preempt him and say, “I am going to stay with you while you bathe tonight,” you are taking control, with love.
But don’t just do this every night for the next two years. Plan your boundaries and ready yourself for tantrums and tears. If you have been trumping the need for a while and you feel your connection is strong, choose the night that you will begin to relax your involvement and say: “Hey, buddy, Dad and I will be in here while you brush your teeth. Come in here when you are done.” Chances are good that he will follow you around and whine or throw a fit. You are going to silently and lovingly hold your boundary until he cries. He may brush his teeth, or he may not. But either way, you are going to read to him and snuggle with him. All of the routines will go as planned. As you are tucking him in, you can say: “We will try the teeth again tomorrow night! No worries!” And stick to your word and try again the next night, having faith that he will get there. His teeth won’t fall out. He won’t become a disaster of a man. You are helping him adapt while also holding on to the relationship.
To recap: Build the relationship by trumping the need, and when it feels right, hold the boundary with compassion and without punishment. A couple of weeks or months from now, this will all be in the rearview mirror.