Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Gift of the Strong Willed Child

 I have a strong willed daughter. Not like, oh, she’s stubborn. Not like, oh, she’s so strong willed. More like, cut off your nose to spite your face. More like, I will fail as hard as I can just so you’re wrong and I’m right. More like, I will get the last word if it’s the last thing I do. More like, we went to a family therapist and I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason we survived the Terrible Threes.

Now, some of this is my fault. I have chosen to use positive and conscious parenting styles with her. That means no spanking and extremely few time outs. That also means a LOT more talking. And picking my battles. And giving her choices. And spending a LOT more time on every single activity because I’m empowering her and guiding her. I don’t know if I would have been more “successful” using other methods. Maybe if I had spanked her and yelled at her and just plain forced her to do things more often she would be more obedient and more pliable now. Perhaps. But I believe that she also would be broken. I believe the experts who claim that breaking a child’s will is detrimental to the child. I follow the advice ofBecky Bailey and Laura Markham. At least, as much as possible. 

I’m not complaining. I’m glad that I have a strong daughter. I hope that she carries her strength forward into adolescence. I hope that her strength gives her courage to dump boys who don’t treat her right, and avoid using alcohol or drugs. I hope her strength gives her confidence in her career as she plunges into this strange new world that’s forming. There’s lots of posts out there about the great parts of having a strong willed child. And I believe them. 

The other day I saw another gift that her strength has given me. I was at Chick Fil A, watching other moms and kids interact. And, as one does, I was mentally evaluating how they acted. Don’t act surprised – you do it too! And something struck me. I saw lots of parents picking fights over what I consider small stuff. Yelling at the table. Crawling on the floor instead of walking. Spilling food on themselves. Burping at the table. 

Now, even if my daughter weren’t the most determined child I’ve ever met, a lot of that I just don’t care about. If we’re in a fast food restaurant, it’s ok for her to act like a child, because she IS a child. If she chooses to move to the door by laying down and pulling her body forward with her arms (which she has done), so what? She’s obeying me and coming along with me, and exercising her creativity while she does so. If she gets excited and yells at the table, so what? She doesn’t have perfect volume control, and we’re in a noisy environment. If she burps, who cares? It’s a natural body function. If she spills food on her dress, who cares? Why would anyone dress a child in clothing that can’t be washed? NOTHING about her appearance is more important than the work she has to do as a child: experimenting with how to sit still, how to eat, how to move, etc. 

But in addition to my own permissive views, I also have to really think about every single battle I pick. When I see a mom chiding her child for crawling on the filthy floor, or for dribbling food on his shirt, I think she’s lucky. She has the luxury of worrying about the small stuff. Her child is compliant enough for her to confront on a minor issue and know that it will be over and done in 5 minutes. I don’t have that luxury. At least, again, because of my choices.

I hate conflict. I hate confrontation. Setting aside the torture of listening to a child throw a tantrum, I don’t even like the initial correction phase. But my daughter is not conflict averse. When she hears a boundary, her first impulse is to test it, to find out just exactly how far it goes. She needs to know every single aspect of that boundary. Are there situations where the boundary doesn’t apply? Does the boundary apply to everyone? What happens if the boundary is violated? Are there any loopholes she can exploit? And, when she was well into her third year, she began to create conflict with me, making requests that she knew I wouldn’t say yes to. And so I grew more and more adept about conscious parenting. I created routines. I imposed consequences. I learned how to remove my emotions from the conflicts and be a strong boundary wall for my daughter. And that’s why I don’t have the luxury of confronting her over the small stuff. 

Is it worth the effort to fight with my child about whether she’s spilling mustard on a white shirt? In my case, absolutely not. Is it worth the effort to fight with my child about kicking me or another person? Absolutely. But the fight about kicking will take all my resources and use me and my daughter up emotionally for at least 2-3 hours. 

This is the gift of a strong willed child. We as parents are forced to not sweat the small stuff. We are also forced to redefine what really is small stuff. Refusing to eat food? Small stuff. Singing loudly in her bedroom for up to 2 hours each night? Small stuff. Pouting while doing a chore? Small stuff.

And a final note: My child is not a holy terror. Yes, she can be loud in restaurants and sometimes she will crawl or walk on her hands and feet instead of walking normally. But she is unfailingly polite, using Thank You and Please liberally. She is kind to other kids at the playground. She can sit at a table and make an effort to eat whatever food is set in front of her. In fact, even if she doesn’t like the food, she won’t come out and complain (unless she’s at home with mommy and daddy). Most people have no idea of how intense and strong she can be. The way we’re parenting is a lot of hard work. And I’m not sure it’s absolutely the best way. But it is working. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

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