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The Third Option: How Parents Can Respond to In-Between Behaviors (Part 1)

Sometimes, children do things or say things that fall in between our need to be accepting or containing. How should parents respond to these "in-between behaviors"?
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In childrearing, parents often feel they have to choose between accepting and containing.

Sometimes children's actions warrant a message of acceptance, affirmation or approval. You see your 8-year-old daughter using peanut butter as "lipstick" much to the amusement of her younger brother. You feel a need to intervene, but you wait to see if she eventually eats her sandwich. You choose acceptance.

Other actions require a message of containment, restraint or intolerance. Your 11-year-old son grabs the TV remote from his younger brother and changes the channel despite his brother's protests. You step in and say, "Wait just minute." You choose containment.

But sometimes, children do things or say things that fall in between our need to be accepting or containing. How should parents respond to these "in-between behaviors"?

Consider this situation: Your 10-year-old son has been teasing his little sister about an embarrassing incident that happened in the school cafeteria. She was drinking milk when someone told a joke and she spewed it from her mouth and through her nose. It was vey funny and everyone laughed, including her, but now her brother's retelling of the story is hurting his sister's feelings and encouraging teasing from her own friends.

You've watched him do this for a while and you're concerned that staying silent is being read as a message that you're ok with it. But what do you say?

It probably isn't "Great job with the teasing. Keep up the good work."

Do you issue a warning ("Hey, stop teasing your sister! If you do it again, you'll be punished")?

Do you impose a sanction ("You've been mean to your sister, so I've decided there's no TV for you tonight")?

Both options seem a bit much under the circumstances.

What kind of parental response falls in between being accepting or containing?

I suggest using what I call the third Option. It's neither accepting nor containing. This is how it works:

First, tell your son what you've seen. Second, tell him what you believe. Third, stop talking.
It should sound something like this: "I know your sister's milk incident was pretty funny, but I think your comments are starting to hurt her feelings."

Notice the three parts. The first is your observation about your son's behavior; it's neither accusatory nor critical. You're simply a reporter describing what you've seen. The second is a reminder about your family's core beliefs and values (e.g., We care about one another and we don't hurt each other). When you place these two things -- observations and values -- side-by-side in the same comment it creates a kind of gentle feedback. It's a helpful, supportive way to say, "Here's what we believe and here's what you're doing. I'm not saying you're in trouble for what you're doing but I'm also not saying I approve of it."

The third and perhaps most important part of the third option is the period, the little dot at the end that says, "That's it; I'm done. I'll leave it to you to decide what happens next."

Stopping at the period is the hardest part of using the third option. Many parents will feel the urge to keep going. They'll want to make sure their child "fully understands" or "really gets the message." In truth, going past the period is usually an effort to manage their discomfort and uncertainty. Stopping at the period means letting the situation play out on its own.

Welcome to parenting and welcome to the third option.