Parenting the Seriously Compliant Child

Published in ‘Parenting’ Magazine, Issue 28, Autumn 2007

Compliance from our children is something many of us strive for throughout our parenting career, so it is hard to imagine a situation where this could ever be a problem. Most obedient, amenable children are a joy, but there can be pitfalls in too much compliance.

Disease to pleaseSome children are by nature kind, affectionate, friendly and empathetic and if you have a son or daughter like this, then congratulations! You’ve just won lotto! You are likely to have a much easier road in family life than some of your friends and acquaintances. You may be wondering why other parents are struggling when, for you, parenting is such a joy! Please spare a thought for those of us who are differently blessed. But, before you sit back and relax, take some time to consider that it may not all be plain sailing.

Let me explain how to spot the compliant child, other than their obvious compliance! From a very young age they are ‘people people’. They are interested in others, observe them, comment on them, enjoy their company, have a natural desire to create harmony and may assume responsibility for other people’s happiness. They form strong friendships and hope for equal loyalty in return for their whole-hearted commitment.

As toddlers their play often involves caring for their toys and they are acutely sensitive to the emotions of those around them. A crying baby will cause them distress as will a child who is hurt, and you will have to sit with them through sad movies to assure them that it all turns out well in the end. They can be very clingy to their significant loved ones, especially when being dropped off with someone they are not sure loves them as much the person who is leaving. They tend to need more physical contact than other children, finding a myriad of ways to be close to their parents and carers, sneaking cuddles at every opportunity. They can also be very jealous of the positive attention received by others when they don’t feel they have had their share.

These children are great kids to have around as they have an innate desire to please, but, as with everything, you can have too much of a good thing. I call this the ‘disease to please’ when it has gone too far.

You may be wondering what such obviously lovely children are ever going to do wrong? The major issues for them can be summed up in just a few words. Lack of praise and peer pressure.

These personalities, both the child and adult version, need praise like they need air. It is hugely important that you do not deprive them! If it is not in your nature to offer praise then please recondition yourself. You may think that you said something positive last month and surely that will do for a while. Think again. They will need this valuable commodity several times daily and it is from us, their parents, that they will desire it most. The very best praise is what the child values rather than what you value. In this case it is for being the very lovely, special, individuals they are. The positive difference they make to your life must be acknowledged.

Do your eyes light up when they come in the room? If they don’t – they should! Children with this personality-preference love to feel welcomed and included in all social situations. Rejection or exclusion is very hard for them to take.

I have a friend who has three children. Her last was a very compliant child whose behaviour suddenly deteriorated. She felt his older siblings were more needy and because this third child gave her very few problems she thought he was just fine. Until one day when he wasn’t. She couldn’t understand it, until she realised that she hadn’t given him as much special time and attention lately. He had ‘fallen through the cracks’ and his needs went unnoticed so he, quite sub-consciously, ‘threw a wobbly’ and his behaviour went on a downward spiral. What turned him around was a few days of positive parental attention and praise. I am the first to admit that it isn’t always this easy, but when you understand a child’s primary needs and then supply them, it can make all the difference in the world.

Don’t be surprised if you think everything is going well and suddenly, whatever they consider to be the final straw happens, and they have a major melt down. This is typical behaviour as children with this personality don’t want to upset anyone by complaining, and then it all gets too much for them. It is so much better to regularly give them the time they need to express their feelings. If they have had a bad day, encourage them to talk it through or write it down.

When disciplining or correcting these children try using the ‘good news sandwich’ technique. First the good news, praise them for one of their strengths; then explain the behaviour that needs to change, and finally some more good news.

I’d like to look at the effect of peer pressure. Peer pressure in the sand-pit is not a big issue. Peer pressure later in life certainly is. Sex, alcohol and drugs are high pressure issues so how we teach our children to handle peer pressure at a young age is all important.

Imagine asking a very compliant young child what they would like to do today. The child obligingly answers “Whatever you want to do is fine with me.” At this point you are feeling quite smug – what a wonderful child – but way off in the distance some alarm bells should be ringing. A few years later you may ask the same child “ What do you think about ‘such and such’?” The child replies that whatever you think about it is fine with her. The alarm bells at this point should be ringing even louder because what she is communicating is that she will agree with you to keep the peace. What she needs to know is that even though she has a different opinion, you will still love her.

Imagine the same child as a seventeen-year-old at a party. Her boyfriend has had too much to drink but still offers her a lift home. She now has to make a potentially life-threatening choice. Should she keep the peace and still be loved or should she make a stand and risk losing a friend? If she has had experience of being personally valued for her independent thinking, then the chances of her making the right choice increase dramatically. This scenario clearly illustrates the problem with over-compliance. It is why, as parents of these delightful children, we must build resilience and boundaries by equipping them with skills that do not come naturally.

You can do this by asking “What would you do if…” questions from as early an age as possible about age-appropriate situations. For example, what would you do if you saw your friend being bullied by another friend? What would you do if your two best friends wanted to play different games? What would you do if your friend told you he had stolen some sweets from the dairy? By starting this type of conversation from a young age they will not be surprised when you ask the harder questions later on. Always make sure they are aware that their opinion is valued.

Compliance is great. Enjoy it. Value it. But also be awake to its potential downside and you may spare everyone some problems further down the track.

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