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Lucky Dad No. 14: The Five Minute Warning

People hate to be micromanaged. They hate it. Show me a micromanager, and I’ll show you a lousy boss. By contrast, management gurus tell us that giving people control over their work and time is one of the best and most important tools for motivating people, improving morale, sparking creativity, and improving productivity.

So why in God’s name do we micromanage our kids? You see it constantly, parents and other authority figures issuing arbitrary and peremptory orders to children. I’ll bet that “Right now!” is one of the first phrases some kids learn, as in: “Clean up your room right now!” “We’re leaving right now!” “Do your homework right now!

I get it that sometimes a child really needs to do something right now! When the building is on fire, there is no time for a thoughtful discussion. But life doesn’t need to be a constant fire drill for little kids. All the Right now!, along with all the have to and all the Learning Opportunities (see previous Lucky Dad installments), are the bane of a child’s existence.

The management gurus have entire books devoted to helping organizations increase their employees' autonomy, but for kids I can boil it down to one concept. When it comes to small children, all you need is the Five Minute Warning. It works like this. Your kids are in the swimming pool, and they are as happy as fish. Unfortunately, it’s time to go, and the kids have to get out of the pool. Before we go any further, it’s worth asking whether this really is a have to moment. Is whatever's going to happen next really better, or more important, than the swimming pool? If not, then relax. Call ahead and let them know that you will be late to whatever that next thing was going to be. If you’ve been part of creating a swimming pool full of happy kids, then give yourself a pat on the back, because you have achieved one of the glories of parenthood.

But let us stipulate that it really is time to go. You could tell the kids to “Get out of the pool right now!” But good luck with that. As we all know, the usual reaction to “Get out of the pool right now!" is that the kids dive under water and swim to the middle of the pool. They may pretend they didn’t hear you, but they heard you all right. They just don’t want to get out of the water, especially with no advance notice. You will now have one hell of a time making them get out, and whenever it finally happens, it will certainly not be right now, unless you feel like jumping in and dragging them out yourself.

So try this instead. Go to the edge of the pool, get your kids’ attention, and say to them “We have to leave in five minutes.” They may still dive under water and swim to the middle of the pool in protest, but a few minutes later – maybe in three minutes, maybe in ten minutes, it doesn’t really matter – they will come out willingly enough. Why? Because there is a huge difference between “Right Now!” and “in five minutes.” The difference isn’t about the clock, it's about respect for the kids. “In five minutes” doesn’t really mean 300 seconds from now. It means that time is almost up, but they have a few minutes to finish what they are doing, or do their favorite thing one more time.

The Five Minute Warning has countless variations. Here are just a few examples.

“Turn off the TV when [fill in the blank]” – the blank could be the next commercial, or the end of the episode, or the end of the game.

“Clean up the dishes before/after [fill in the blank]” – before leaving the room; before/after dessert; before going to bed. “Mow the lawn (or do any other chore) before/after [fill in the blank]” – before leaving for practice; after breakfast; before dinner.

“Your friend has to go home [fill in the blank]” – in an hour; before dinner.

“Time to finish the game – the winner is whoever scores the next two out of three.”

What these have in common is the idea that the kids can keep going a bit longer, but they need to get ready to stop. It makes all the difference. You give them a sense of control over their lives. And who knows? Maybe it will give them such killer time management skills that they will waltz their way into the Ivy Leagues.

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