My strong-willed child (part 1)

Parenting fantasies start from the gold dust of dreams. They are shaped by personal values and rooted in experiences from our own childhoods. Before we become parents we imagine ourselves exuding the perfect ratio of love, creativity, and authority to yield a happy, healthy, and respectful child. Around the time our kids become independent mobile units though, these ideas start to leak like a sieve.

This post goes out to my friend E, who has witnessed my steep parenting learning curve, and recently sent this text about her one-year-old: “My son needs some sort of discipline,” she writes. “He knows the word no and he doesn’t give a f@%$. He really doesn’t. What do I do with that?”

Obedient children are lovely to be around. I’d like to have one, but you have to prioritize characteristics to cultivate in your kids according to what is available. There’s not infinite room in the garden; so you might not be able to grow petunias and begonias.

Lately I have become curious about why obedience became the value to cultivate in children above all other values. Obedience is desirable as a practical skill. It keeps kids safe, well-mannered, and cooperative. It is also boring and stifling.

I was raised to be obedient. “Be good,” my dad always said as we parted ways, and I knew what was meant. When I was a kid all it took was the threat of a spanking; the forward leaning, wide-eyed lear of a grandfather; the shrill or else of my mother to straighten me up. That was all I needed to act right. Threats were many; consequences were few.

Kids today don’t give a shit about empty threats. “Or else what, ma?” they want to know. I don’t know what has changed in the past 35 years, but parenting is different now. “Different pollens in the air,” says my friend M.

In his book Free to Learn, author Peter Gray summarizes this system as beginning with the agricultural age when hierarchies of dominance and submission became rules to live by. “Just as we train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do,” he writes, “we train children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that regardless of whether the horse or child wants such training, or benefits from it as an individual. Training requires suppression of the trainees will; it requires a concept of disciplining others that was foreign to hunter-gatherers.”

*

I got the exact wild, brave, curious daughter I always wanted. The surprise is how little control I have over her. She is, what is called, a strong-willed child.

Strong-willed children require a complete rearrangement of how we thought parenting would go: Instead of being strict and consistent, I have needed to become flexible and empathetic. Overall, I have also become less angry, anxious, and close-minded. Parenting these kids can be a great thing if you let it be; or you can stick to your former notions of authority and die trying.

A’s lack of obedience is most difficult when safety is concerned. Rather than offering a constant “Be careful!” chorus as the soundtrack to her young life, I watch for moments when she becomes distracted. “Focus,” I say, or “Do you feel safe?” Yes, I have caught her in mid-air as she dropped off of the monkey bars. On another occasion she hit the ground but was totally fine. “We’re training for the Olympics,” I tell bystanders.

I have had to get very specific with myself about what I am protecting my daughter from. If the risk does not include loss of life or limb (or an emergency room bill), and if she will most likely keep her face, then I say nothing. Proceed, my child, and learn.

I refrain from bringing up her mortality because I don’t want her athleticism curbed by of adult fears. Nor do I want her looking to others to determine what level of risk is acceptable. She should learn to gauge safety and threat for herself.

My ideas, of course, don’t always work. Yesterday my mom, A, and I walked the boardwalk along a neighborhood duck pond. Everything is going swimmingly until A starts wondering about the snacks left locked inside the car, and she takes off for the parking lot at a full sprint.

“Stop!” I shout. “Mama says stop!” But she gives not a damn and is soon out of earshot. My mom looks at me, waddling through the last month of my twin pregnancy, then looks ahead to the blur of our charge racing away. “I can’t catch her,” I shrug. “She probably wont die.”

Good old grandma runs after her.

I know this makes me sound terribly passive. A has taught me to examine all situations through the lens of the serenity prayer and realize there many moments with her in which I have very little say. I have come to value keeping my cool over maintaining control because it’s something I can actually do.

When A returns, there is no reprimand, no consequence, no warning, or threat. There is an explanation. “When mama says stop, you stop,” I say. “When you run far away I worry that you’ll be hit by a car. And I worry you might meet a bear or a person feeling ‘no-no’ and mama won’t be there to take care of you.”

The word, “discipline,” means “to teach.” For the rest of this day and the next, we practice stop and go with a game like red-light, green-light. I use our secret call “Coo-eee!” to beckon her back to my side, and she comes running.

*

Parenting a strong-willed child cannot be about obedience and control because you will lose too many battles. Your relationship must hinge upon something else or you will also lose the war. The last thing any of us wants is to suffer through these childhoods, only to be hated by our kids as adults.

I have yelled. I have spanked. None of it changed my daughter’s behavior one iota and I felt terrible afterwards. When I am angry she shuts down or ignores me. She does not do as I wish, and no ‘parenting’ is accomplished. In short, nothing that was supposed to work actually works. The only thing she responds to, is love.

The antithesis to parenting with an iron fist is to teach a child self regulation. If A doesn’t go to bed when I tell her to then she must learn to rest when she is tired. If she won’t wear the clothes I offer her then she must learn to dress appropriately for the weather and bring an extra layer: I will not procure a sweater from some bag when she gets cold.

In response to our difficulties, I have become more creative about how I talk to my daughter. Every time we open our mouth’s to speak we choose a vessel, a mood, and a posture to carry our words. Instead of demanding deference, I have learned to make a request, reference a rule, convey an observation, explain how I feel, or ask a question. I can issue a statement, give a directive, redirect, distract, or enforce a consequence. I can get physical and overpower my child or find words to guide her by. I can evoke equality, superiority, or submission. Words can bring good humor, sarcasm, anger, or careful intention. In almost any situation I can go silly, tender, or angry. I can bargain, be vague, or be indecisive. I can do nothing. I can encourage dependence and obedience to the status quo or free-thinking, independence, and perseverance.

*

I have given up control for the sake of building a great relationship with my daughter. Yes, the hectocity level is high. I make myself feel better by worrying about what happens when obedient children grow up. Do they rebel hard-core as teens? Struggle to make even the smallest decisions? Spend their lives trying to please others? Lose sight of who they really are?

The teen years around our house will require some patience; but I’m not worried. Perhaps a curfew will hold no power over A. If that’s the case, I will have to get specific with my daughter around drunk driving, intimate relationships, and other taboos of being out after midnight. We will define our family boundaries together (see clause on parenting fantasies, above). With open conversation and understanding, I hope to know where my daughter is and what she is up to. With enough love and mutual trust, maybe she’ll call me first when she’s in a bind or needs a ride. A kid who spent her whole life falling off the straight and narrow and getting busted doesn’t do that.

Teaching self regulation takes a lot of patience and effort up front, but it seems so worth it. Also, I see no other option. This is working. What can I say? She is who she is. If there is anyway to change her, I haven’t found it. That’s probably a good thing.

***

Part two of this post is a list of Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids and references for further exploration.

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