An Easy Strategy for Picking Your Battles


“Daddy, I love my pajamas! I really want to wear them to school. Can I, please?”

The father of this three-year-old hesitated. The pajamas his daughter wanted to wear were weather-appropriate and good quality, but should he let her wear them to school? Should he insist she get dressed in her normal clothes, or should he allow her to wear pajamas to school?

A client came to me recently with this dilemma and asked what he should do. I told him, “It depends on your values. What lesson do you want her to learn?”

If the father’s value was to teach his daughter to express her individuality or think outside the box, then he should allow her to wear the pajamas. If his value was to teach his daughter that there are certain social norms that must be followed, then he should ask her to wear her daytime clothes.

Use Your Values as a Guide

At some point in our work together, almost every parent asks me “Is this a battle worth fighting?”  But parents soon realize that they can answer their own question once they have clarified their values. That’s because values can easily help you determine how to respond to your child in the moment.

 If his father knows that his overall value is to teach his daughter to try new things (as long as it won’t hurt her or anyone else), his response will come easily to him: “Sure, wear your pajamas to school today.”

Here is another example, this time from my own family:

As is the case with any 4-year-old, my daughter doesn’t like going to bed. When I tell her that it is time to stop reading and go to sleep, she says, “No, Mommy! I don’t WANT to.”

So what should I do? Do I focus on her disrespectful response? Tell her that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do? Emphasize that bedtime is bedtime and complaining is useless?

I go back to my values for guidance. When it comes to parenting, my first value is “respect yourself” and my second value is “respect others.”

I want my daughter to recognize and speak up for what she wants and needs. But I also want her to express those things in ways that is respectful to others.

So I say, “Oh, you don’t want to stop reading. It must be a good book…tell me about it.”

(I’m taking her perspective seriously and treating her with respect – modeling my value and the behavior I want her to learn.)

After she responds, I say, “Thank you for sharing that with me. Now it’s time for bed. Let’s decide how we should put the book down. Do you want to use a bookmark or put it down so it looks like a tent?” Nine times out of 10, she will put the book down and go to bed.

The “Win”

If I had focused on how rude her tone was or how she needed to go to bed immediately, would she really have learned how important the value of “respect” is? Would she have learned what it looks like to be respectful? If I hadn’t consulted my values, she would more likely have learned what it looks like when I lose my cool!

And it appears that she has learned the lesson. I am proud to say that I have even witnessed my daughter responding to little sister by calmly saying, “Please stop doing that,” rather than yelling “STOP! You’re annoying me!”

Take a moment to identify your top 3-5 values. (This is a great exercise to do with your spouse/partner.) See for yourself how easy it is to determine which “battles” to choose when you have concrete ideas to guide you.