The other day I was working with a mother and son. During session, the boy took off his shoes so he could be more comfortable while playing on the floor. At the end of session, the mother asked him to put his shoes back on so they could leave. The five year-old refused.
Mom sighed and said, "Okay, let's go."
The boy opened the door and walked out towards the reception area in his socks. As the mother and I trailed behind, mom looked at me and began explaining, "He's always hated wearing his shoes. So, rather than fighting with him, I just carry extra socks. When he gets in the car, I'll just take off his dirty socks, put clean ones on and then put his shoes on for him. He's been doing this for so long, I've just learned to pick my battles."
Another mom recently told me how her two year-old daughter screamed bloody murder when mom refused to hand over a flower dress that was now too small for the girl. At that moment, mom was actually giving the dress and other clothes the girl had outgrown to a friend. When I asked mom what happened next, she said, "She was screaming so loudly about that damn dress, I just let her wear it to bed. You've just got to pick your battles, you know?"
I can see these moms' points. Engaging in battles with our kids is exhausting, and if we didn't pick them, then we'd be battling all day long. But these situations left me wondering: What does it really mean to "pick your battles"?
Let's look at Flower Dress Mom's situation. The child wanted the flower dress. In fact, she wanted to wear it to bed, which she did. And maybe the child's mother and her friend didn't really care whether the child kept the dress and wore it to bed or not. I mean, really, who cares? It's just a dress. The friend got a bag full of other clothes for her own kid. And it's certainly not going to harm the girl if she sleeps in a dress that's a wee bit too small. Hell, I don't care if my kids sleep in togas, so long as they sleep. So, why engage in a battle over such a non-issue? Instead, pick a more important battle in which to engage. Right?
But here's the thing: Did mom actually "pick the battle" or did she surrender?
If you look at the situation from a reinforcement perspective, mom waved that flower dress like a white flag and surrendered. If you remove all the distracting details and cut the situation down to the core, what you have is a child tantruming to get what she wants. And because she got what she wanted, she'll be sure to tantrum again because now she knows it works!
Child 1, Mom 0.
Now, let's take a look at Sock Mom. Kid refuses to wear shoes and walks around soiling his socks. Rather than fighting with him over it, she figured out an alternative: live with it, carry extra socks, and put his shoes on for him once in the car. I give mom credit for looking at an alternative solution. But, again, is this solution picking the battle, or is it surrendering?
Viewing the situation through a reinforcement lens, those bright white socks are looking much more like a bright white flag. Why should mom go to extra trouble to have clean socks on her at all times? Why not just let the kid walk around in soiled socks, which would be a natural consequence of his choice? Maybe over time the kid would begin to dislike the feeling of wearing soggy filthy socks. Then maybe he'd start wearing his shoes more often. (Or maybe he'd go barefoot and still refuse to wear his shoes! But even then, just tell the kid you can't take him anywhere: no socks, no shoes, NO SERVICE!)
To me, "picking your battles" means not enforcing arbitrary rules at any given moment in order to be right or show our kids we're in charge. I don't force my kid to wear the shirt I picked out for him when in the end it doesn't really matter what shirt he wears so long as he wears one. Instead, "picking your battles" means we're thoughtful in the rules we want to enforce and we're consistent in enforcing them. Thus, if the rule is "no tantruming," we don't ever give in to tantrums, no matter what the circumstances are. If we want our kid to learn to be responsible and wear his shoes when appropriate, then we let him actually learn it. We don't accommodate him or do it for him so he never has to learn.
In the end, however, I still feel dissatisfied with this definition of "pick your battles." I think part of my dissatisfaction is that thinking in terms of "battle" when dealing with our children only seems to reinforce the concept of power struggles. And whenever I've engaged in a power struggle with my kids, I have never, ever won. But that's a whole other post.