Do you have a strong willed child? Wait, let me rephrase:
Do you have a child?
All children are strong-willed, especially ones in that special age range (between ages 2 and 25, give or take). Every child has his or her buttons, but every single one finds a way to stubbornly defy seemingly all attempts at successful parenting.
This article is primarily aimed at parents of children between 2 and 5 years old, but the general ideas I’ve distilled here from personal experience can be applied more broadly with a bit of consideration.
Strong-willed children present innumerable challenges for parents, but there are still ways we can make life easier for parent and child alike. Parenting is challenging, and every little bit helps. These are some of the ways my wife and I stay mostly sane. (Mostly.)
Create Irrelevant Choices
A few weeks ago I had a difficult morning with my son. We spent 10 minutes arguing over what at the time felt like a very important matter. His breakfast was delayed as a result, which meant I had to rush him through it. I ultimately got him out the door late and made my wife late for work. Throughout all this, my son complained and even began to cry when he had to bring part of his breakfast to day care instead of eating it at home.
Why did this happen? Because he didn’t like the shirt I had picked for him to wear.
I know, it sounds like a trivial matter. The worst part is that I recognized it as trivial, which was why I couldn’t understand why he made such a big deal out of not wearing the shirt. It was a shirt he had worn a week ago without incident. He had no reason to reject the shirt — but the mind of a toddler does not always utilize reason.
What I’d failed to pick up on was the simple fact that he wanted to pick the shirt. The shirt itself didn’t matter — what mattered was that I had picked it out, or rather that he had not. He simply wanted a choice in the matter and I missed it because I wasn’t looking for it when I should have been (after all, 3-year-olds don’t exactly articulate their feelings well).
Now I know to prepare a backup outfit. It takes an extra minute or two at most — he is a boy, and boys’ clothes are simple — and it saves me a morning fight that may otherwise ruin my day and his. And frankly, I don’t care what he wears to day care as long as his butt is covered and he isn’t advertising mustache rides.
Another mistake parents make in this situation is assuming the child doesn’t have a reason for his decision. My son always has a reason. He may not always be able to tell me what it is, and I may not always agree with it or recognize it as a “good” reason, but reason is there. He may be 3 years old, but he’s not a chimpanzee, and I can’t expect him to respect me if I treat him like one.
SOLUTION: Look for ways to provide choices for your child that don’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. Make these choices easy to access and be ready to offer them when you sense a fight brewing. The perceived autonomy will make your child feel more empowered and less likely to resist other guidance from you.
Stop Worrying About Your Schedule
In the previous example, my fight with my son made my wife late for work. This did not please her, as you can imagine. How did this affect the rest of her work day?
Not one bit, as it turns out.
Obviously there are times when a schedule is important, but those times are far fewer than you think. If there’s a tornado siren going off, get your child into the basement as fast as possible without caring if they cry about it. But if you’re going to be five minutes late for his swimming lesson, you probably don’t need to start a fight over it.
Even my aforementioned home morning routine isn’t life or death. If my wife is five minutes late getting our son to day care, she can work an extra five minutes to make it up. Not everyone has that kind of flexibility, but if you do, don’t pretend that you can’t make an occasional exception to the on-time rule on general principle. If being five minutes late is going to lose you your job, then it’s time to put your foot down. Otherwise relax.
SOLUTION: Remember that any schedule you make is a schedule you can unmake. Force your child to stick to the bottom line, absolute, totally inflexible deadlines. Don’t sweat the rest of the calendar.
Relax Your Principles (A Little)
I like to think of myself as a man of principle. But like almost anything else, principle can be flexible — and no one is better at showing you exactly where you bend yours like children.
Standing firm on a principle comes naturally to most parents, if not easily. Most of us do not want our children lying habitually, so we rebuke or punish them for lying. But is lying always bad? More importantly, is lying always a sign of willful deception? My son has lied to me about things so he can get an extra piece of candy, but he’s also done it so he can get an extra hug. Should I be so quick to jump on him for the latter if he only wants to be close to me and can’t figure out how to ask?
The key here is picking the right hills to die on, so to speak. Don’t resist changing your mind about something because you want to make a point about sticking to your guns. The message will confuse and frustrate your child because children are simple creatures who do not operate on moral principle. If they don’t understand the reason for your decision, there may as well not be one.
I used to abhor going back on my word with my son in any circumstance — if I told him “no treat after dinner because you were naughty,” I damn well wasn’t giving him a treat after dinner. This inflexibility gave him no incentive to reform his behavior because no matter how nice he was, I’d already told him I wouldn’t be rewarding it (which to him meant I wasn’t recognizing it). If I left room for him to earn back a reward, he had an opportunity to prove to me — and himself — that he wasn’t a naughty boy.
With that said, my wife and I do have a few hills. We have no tolerance for him putting his baby sister in danger, breaking things on purpose, treating other people with disrespect, or doing things that are unsafe (like running into the street without looking or jumping off really high things). Aside from the big ones, though, we try to be more flexible, and we’re getting better behavioral results.
SOLUTION: Only stand on principle when absolutely necessary, and for the right reasons. Exercise flexibility on pretty much everything else.
Young children like to ask “why.” The world is vast and new to them; they experience a great deal of stimuli and don’t understand most of it. That’s why they have their parents.
Son: Can we roast marshmallows in the fireplace?
Me: No, because we don’t have any wood.
Son: Why don’t we have wood?
Me: We used it all.
Son: Why did we use it all?
Me: It was a long winter (an understatement my son failed to grasp).
Son: Why was it a long winter?
Me: (annoyed) Because sometimes it just stays cold longer.
Son: Why does it stay cold longer?
Me: (more annoyed) Because weather patterns are different every year.
Predictably, this conversation ended with mutual frustration. But did it have to end with me chasing him away to play elsewhere and him stomping off in a huff? The whole episode gnawed at me, so I considered how I’d behaved.
I realized that I wasn’t annoyed with him wanting to know things. I wasn’t annoyed with him having many questions about the world and wanting to get them answered. I wasn’t even annoyed with him asking the same question over and over again. I was annoyed with him asking me over and over again.
This realization hit me hard. I want my son to be inquisitive about the world, and I definitely want him to seek answers from reliable sources. My frustration with him came only from the fact that his thirst for knowledge inconvenienced me.
If a behavior is bothering you and you’re not immediately sure why, it might be a you problem. Don’t let your personal or parenting ego get in the way of recognizing that you may be bringing some unnecessary baggage into a situation or conversation with your child. Exercise patience, and be there for your child even if what they want begins to feel ridiculous.
SOLUTION: Stop thinking like a babysitter and start thinking like a parent. Children are inconvenient for a lot of good reasons — embrace them!