When and When NOT to Use “My Way or the Highway” as a Parent

Brittney Serpell

When my oldest daughter, Delani, was four, Ben and I took her to check out the new playground at the local mall. After watching her energetically exploring the playground’s many colorful objects, the slide inside a tree, and turtles to climb on, it was obvious that she would have been happy to stay there all day.

When it was time to go, I asked Delani, “Do you want to leave in three minutes or five?”

Like any normal child who had just stumbled on a wonderland and had no intention of leaving, Delani replied with a loud, “No!”

“Delani, do you want to leave in three minutes or five minutes?” I repeated.

She simply looked at me, then ran back to the slide.

A few other parents were there witnessing this exchange, and I could feel that classic pressure rising as they anticipated my next move, the silent questions and judgments pointed at me. What’s she going to do? I know what I’d be doing!

Steeling myself, I stepped toward my daughter with “You choose or I choose” on the tip of my tongue. Just then, a mom beside me spoke up and said, “You got to say, ‘It’s my way or the highway!’ Then she’ll listen.”

The minute she said it, I realized that was basically what I was about to do. “You choose or I choose” is designed to give kids choices, but it can easily become, “You choose—and the only thing you get to choose is what I am choosing.” In other words, “My way or the highway.”

For the Love of Ultimatums

If you’re a parent, I’m willing to bet that you heard “My way or the highway”—or something similar—growing up, and that it has popped out of your mouth at some point. We all do it! In the inevitable battles of will that erupt between parents and children, it’s so tempting to grasp for ultimatums. How many times must we beg our children to move, pick up their backpack instead of just tossing it in the hallway, or just try the food on their plate? Why do they refuse to do the things that would just make our life that much simpler, sane, and happy? Why can’t they just do it our way?

At the same time, we need to recognize that ultimatums are blunt instruments that should only be applied in certain circumstances. They can’t be our go-to parenting tools. Why? Because their goal is control, not discipline.

Now, if my child is in danger, then control is a great goal to have. In the face of a threat, I want them to obey my will at whatever cost necessary. But when such a threat is not present, then control is no longer a great goal. (Yes, I know sometimes as a parent it can feel like there’s always some DEFCON 5 threat to our children’s lives, but the reality is that we can’t live there.)

Our goal must be to discipline our children toward the goal of being powerful, self-controlled adults who manage their freedom in the context of a safe, loving connection where they are motivated by love, not fear. And for that they need choices, not ultimatums.

Showing Our Hearts

As I walked toward my daughter on that playground, I took stock of the moment. Yes, we needed to leave and get other errands done, but these were not more important than giving Delani the chance to practice being powerful and learn that her actions have impact. This was also a chance for me show her that I wanted her to be moved by my heart and not by fear.

I knelt down beside Delani, looked into her eyes and said, “Hey sweet girl, Mommy said its time to go. When you yelled “No,” it hurt Mommy’s heart. I know you’re having fun and you want to stay, but we need to do some other things today. Do you want to leave in three minutes or five minutes, or do you need me to choose?”

This time, she looked at me with sad eyes, then said, “Okay Mommy. Five minutes, Mommy—five more minutes!”

This was the dream response for this situation. I almost couldn’t believe it worked! And I am 100% positive that if I had said “My way or the highway,” a loud chase scene would have ensued in the middle of the mall. Instead, we had a peaceful five more minutes of play before leaving—because I chose connection and empowerment over control.

Delani is now twelve—on the verge of stepping into that great journey of learning about freedom that is the teenage years. My best hope is that Ben and I have been preparing her for these years by spending almost her whole life in constant pursuit of the goal of connection with her. Have we lost track of this goal at times? Sure. But each time we have returned to the choice we made long ago—to create a free, safe, and powerful environment for our children to grow up in. We want powerful, connected kids, not compliant ones.

Parents, don’t be afraid to set your boundaries and keep them, no matter where that may be! Your consistency helps create safety, and that communicates love. But I encourage you to avoid ultimatums and keep showing your heart to your kids as you offer them choices. You’ve got this!




P.S. I will be speaking on parenting at all of our LOP Summits this year! Join us for a day of wisdom, laughter, and encouragement as we equip you to use the tools of connection with your kids. lopsummits.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. This is lovey! You reminded me that being kind always has a better outcome than an impatient controlling reaction. its so challenging at times, but when you get a response like the one you described in your story, the well done is incredible! Thank you, your wisdom and experience is appreciated.

  2. Am not a mother (yet), but I enjoyed this post. It’s great you have been able to be vulnerable and explain your reasons to your daughter and not sound weak. I will use these tools with my children by God’s grace.

    Much love,

    Ngozi from London

  3. This is so powerful! Having a tool at hand instead of a sledgehammer is empowering for both parents and child! Love this!

  4. This was enlightening…it really spoke to me. You chose to clarify the situation for your daughter instead of giving her an ultimatum. What a great example of teaching your daughter language as well! ♡ thank you for sharing!

  5. I know situations like that very well. And what I struggle with here is where the line is between connecting and emotionally manipulating my child. When I tell her "this made mommys heart sad", how is that different – at least for a sensitive child – from saying "you have one choice only and that is my choice" because everything else will make mommy feel bad/sad/hurt? I am seriously struggling with that (and as you might have guessed, I grew up in a dysfunctional family myself, so I’m a bit at a loss here)

  6. I think this is a very good article. Having been a mother, and now grandmother, your words to your daughter surely addressed the situation in a non-confrontive way.

    I am concerned; however with your statement:
    We want powerful, connected kids, not compliant ones.

    I don’t believe being compliant is a bad thing; in fact, I looked up the definition. Synonyms include :cooperative, easily directed, agreeable, amenable.

    We do want our children to understand situations, and comply, not because we bully them of course, but because it is often the right thing to do.

    1. I hear your heart on this, Lynn, and I think when our kids are both self controlled and connected, the result is often compliance. There difference is in the focus. If we focus on compliance over connection, we get obedience from the motive of not being punished. When we focus on connection and developing self control, we get relationship and compliance as a choice.

  7. I strive to do this but find that I think I end up at a "you choose or I choose" moment of control so I wonder how do you respond if after connecting with Delani and sharing your heart she still proceed in word or action say that she wasn’t going to leave the playground. It’s great when they make the right choice though if I’m not controlling, which I’m trying not to do, there are times they make the choice that doesn’t fit with the greater needs of the family, etc.. I try to go to natural and logical consequences though sometimes wonder if it comes around to my way or the highway…

    1. A few thoughts: I would remind me child that it’s a general practice in our family that we only enjoy the freedom we can handle. So we can only spend time at the park if they’re willing to listen to Mom or Dad when it’s time to go. If they still didn’t choose a time, I would say ok, three minutes. After three minutes, I’ll start the timer for hassle time. (Check out the Facebook page for what hassle time is). The idea is to have a sequence of escalations that allow the child to experience consequences that are connected and meaningful. Repeatable is ideal, because then the name of the consequence can be used by the child as a decision making tool.

Stay Connected

Receive free resources, stay up to date, and join this community of people on a journey of learning to love, work, and parent with purpose.