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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting Toddlers to do What We Want

I recently read an article entitled "Reverse Pyschology: Appropriate Parenting Tactic?" at A Moment To Think. Great, thought-provoking article. I began to comment on the article, and realized (after writing several paragraphs) that what I really needed to do was to write my own post on the subject.

As a brief summary, the author speaks of trouble getting her toddler girl to eat what she wants her to eat: carrots are used as an example. The author and her husband sit down to eat carrot sticks without their daughter. When she immediately comes over to the table to request a carrot, the parents make a show of hesitating and then reluctantly agree to her request. That is a very brief summary of just one aspect of the article. Do read, the article in its entirety for the full picture. You'll, no doubt, be able to relate to their dilemma, as I can.

I empathize with the author of this article. I've definitely been there. As I read through the article though, I began to see an issue with the reverse psychology approach.

Hubby and I have certainly used reverse psychology ourselves. Yes, reverse psychology can work, in the short term, but I think it has the potential to do more damage and make our lives harder in the long term. And ultimately, we use it as a last resort technique, meaning we've given up.

I'm not judging. I have plenty of lazy parenting days. The point is, we know we're being lazy when we do this sort of thing, and it should tell us that it is perhaps not the best parenting technique we could employ.

I think the idea of eating and enjoying something in order to set a good example for our kids works well.  The problem I see with implying or saying outright that they can't have any, when what we really want is for them to have some (reverse psychology), is what happens next. We then give in to their request.

The message we send when we give in, is that when we say 'no', we don't really mean it. We think we've won because we've tricked them into doing what we want them to do, BUT what we have really done is taught them that if they plead/whine/etc we'll change our minds, and they'll get what they want.

So, what does reverse psychology get us? Potentially, a temporary feeling of euphoria when our kids do what we want them to do (thinking that they are doing it because they want to) and an even harder job of disciplining them in the future.

When it comes to getting our kids to do what's good for them, like eating vegetables, maybe all we can do is set the example and be firm and consistent in whatever disciplinary measures we feel are appropriate. I'm not suggesting this is easy, only that it seems to me the most effective approach in the long term.

For example, what we try to do with Jack is to suggest he at least try everything that's put on the table. We remind him that tastes change, and that even if he didn't like something last week he might like it today. Jack knows that we sometimes have dessert available and we eat it after our supper if we are still hungry. Jack also knows that he can have more of whatever he wants once he finishes everything that's on his plate. We try not to talk any more about the food in front of us. It's hard, but we try to resist reminding him to eat his veggies or offering him more food. We make one meal for everyone to enjoy, not several meals based on personal tastes. We set an example by eating and enjoying our food. Those are some of our methods. They work for us when we are firm and consistent with them. (When we are tired and frustrated, things don't go quite so well.)

What do you think? Can you relate to the dilemma of wanting your child to do something that you know is good for them, like eating vegetables. Can you relate to wanting to use reverse psychology or some other 'trick' to get them to do it? Do you think it works? Do you think it has harmful side effects?

How do you get your kids to do what's good for them?


  1. I can see where that reverse psych could really backfire. I am more of the "here, eat this" kind of parent. It doesn't always work, but most of my kids like most kinds of foods.

  2. I haven't tried reverse psychology on my son. Maybe because I just don't think he'll understand at his age and it will blow up in my face. I'm curious to see what others respond though.

  3. That's interesting. I always use reverse psychology with caution. And I believe if used correctly, it can make life easier for us as parents. I think it's okay if used to get them to eat veggies but not quite when you're spent for the day and just need them to listen to you. Ok, I might not be making any sense anymore. I use that method you use on Jack to get him to try new foods too. I tell my son if he doesn't give it a try, he might just miss out on something too yummy for words!

  4. Oh man, eating is a major issue in our house. I think we've tried everything. We seem to have landed on the 'you must at least try it' thing. Sounds a lot like what you do. And I agree that sometimes modeling best practices is the best we can do. It can be hard to let it go at that. I'm not always successful in that regard. But I try.

  5. Kristen, I love your K.I.S.S. method! lol Wish that worked around here.

    Barbara, we've used it, sort of as a joke, just to see what would happen. It had the desired immediate effect because our son's 'other name' is Opposite Boy (he likes to do the opposite of what people tell him to do), but since it reinforces that behaviour, I can't imagine that's a good thing.

    G, I'm with you there. It's probably a situational thing, and maybe it depends on the kid. It seems a dangerous with my guy, but might work well with other kids.

    Christine, you hit on something that is a real adjustment for us parents - letting go. This year, I don't send snacks to school with my son every day (just once every two months), so I have had to let go control over what he would eat those other days. Tough, but not the end of the world.

  6. This is a great post...I can already see my little one not wanting to eat his carrots...but I just keep offering and eat them as well to show them it is good. I think you are right and that tricking them is not the right way!

  7. Best of luck, Natalie. As long as we stay relaxed about it, I think that's half the battle won.

  8. Talking about feeding my kids makes me grimace and want to run and hide. BUT in a more general sense we are all about good v bad choices. Was that a good choice, is that a bad choice, etc. I agree it's a short-term fix though.

  9. Great post! We don't use reverse psych around here, but I must admit that a little negotiation (aka bribery) does sometimes occur. Eat your carrots/peas/etc get a cookie for dessert....its been said many a time at our house. This is now coming back to haunt us b/c we have trained our girls to believe that doing something good deserves reward when we really just expecting them to 'be good' all the time. So many parenting 'short-cuts' become a slippery slope....

  10. One thing that has happened on more than one occasion at our house is I will say to my 4 year old, "Time to brush your teeth." She will say, "I don't want to brush my teeth."
    I reply, "Then don't brush your teeth." and I walk away. Then she immediately wants to brush her teeth.
    Now this is my daughter and when she says something like that, she is mostly looking for a fight and because I know that about her, I don't engage.
    So yes reverse psychology is used a little bit..

  11. We struggle with eating and meal times. Our 5 yr old only eats a small menu of things. Reverse psychology doesn't even work. She's too smart for it. I can see the long term effects being negative though. You're right. Setting a good example and asking them to at least try something before deciding not to eat it is better. I like how you remind your son that tastes change from week to week, month to month. I must try that one next time:)

  12. Jamie, we talk a lot about choices here too. Takes the 'bad guy' onus off of us and puts the responsibility where it belongs.

    Sadie, I totally agree. We've been there too. Now we say "There is dessert for anyone who is still hungry after finishing what dinner." Most of the time we just don't have dessert (and then mom and dad eat it after the kids go to bed). :)

    Lisa, these kids sure know how to push our buttons, don't they?

    Bruna, that idea about tastes changing came from an aunt - it has really worked!

  13. I agree that it's not really the best tactic, especially when it comes to food.

    There's something I do that I feel really guilty about, and that is pretending to leave without Lilah when she is taking too long or refusing to come. I think it just makes her really insecure and think I'm going to leave her, and it's the opposite message from what I'm always telling her, that Mommy will always be there for her. I know I need to stop, but for some reason it's what pops into my head when I'm at my wits' end and I just need her to cooperate.

  14. Oh, man, do I know what you are going through. We are having some cooperation issues here too. I keep having to up the consequences!

  15. I've been meaning to come over here and comment for the last couple of days.

    I totally agree- our reverse psychology tactic can potentially backfire. I know this. And I also agree that it is a bit 'lazy'. And yet we still do it. Now, truth be told, we use this method sparingly. Like maybe once a week.

    Part of my point with the original post is that sometimes, even though we recognize our methods to not be ideal, we sometimes do them anyway. Because in the short term they do work. (At least this particular method seems to work for my particular kid). I guess that part of the reason is doesn't bother me a ton, is because a) again, it is used sparingly and b) I generally don't prescribe to the 'if you do this it might have a dramatic ever changing impact on your child and make them difficult to deal with later.' Parenting and children are more complicated then that and it is our parenting writ large, not each individual choice, that has the largest impact.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on my post!

    amoment2think aka Kathleen

  16. Hi Kathleen. Oh, absolutely we do them anyway, even though we know they'll have adverse effects. No one is 100% on their game every day all day. I hope I didn't suggest otherwise. I could really relate to your post, and as I commented there, I have definitely been there. Still, I do think we can strive to meet an ideal, and I do think it's important to at least be aware of potential long term effects. It helps me to be less lazy when I think of how much more work I will create for myself by doing so. Thanks again for writing such a thought-provoking article!

  17. We're only just starting to come into troubles with Li'l D really intended to do his own thing, so I don't have any of my own anecdotes to offer. It is helpful reading things like this as part of our contemplating an approach! (Of course, what's contemplated and what's done won't always be in sync. Ahem.)

  18. Totally, I agree. I knew you weren't suggesting otherwise. No one is a perfect parent. But being aware of our faults or weak points and trying to do the best we can is key. As is accepting we aren't perfect and not getting hung up on that!!