Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Managing a strong-willed child

I love this take from Aha Parenting, one of my favourite websites, on strong-willed children. I do consider myself incredibly lucky to have a daughter like Cherry, who already displays natural leadership qualities and has a strength of mind many could spend their entire lives and a lot of money in therapy attempting to acquire.

Of course this makes her very challenging. As a strong-willed adult who was once a strong-willed child I find empathy is there - but it isn't always easy to come by. I cannot deny my immediate reaction is often that I must CRUSH HER. She must defer to and obey to my superior will! I work hard every day to swallow down my inner Victorian parent.

Although I don't doubt it's effective in the short-term, parenting in that manner doesn't work for me. I have no wish to raise an obedient child. I want to raise a child with good judgement.

Obedience is doing whatever you are told, all of the time. Good judgement is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.

Nonetheless I was relieved today to read this from one of my favourite bloggers, Lucy at Dear Beautiful, and this from Hurrah for Gin. Despite the fanfare surrounding 'the terrible twos' I feel Cherry is far ahead of most of her peers when it comes to questioning and challenging. She had to be advanced in some way, I suppose! Having got the fearful tantrums out of the way before she even turned 2 (by beginning that particular phase at 14 months) she has now moved into behaviour more typical of those at least a year older than her. It is reassuring to read that her behaviour is normal and it is reassuring in particular to understand that it's not that I am missing some gigantic mythical easy solution that I have somehow managed to overlook.
It can feel alienating, reading blogs written by mothers of children Cherry's age or talking to parents of two-year-olds about how delightfully obliging their children are. All talk, at this age, still seems to be rooted in academic development. 'He's singing the alphabet now! She's counting to 15!' I remain - not uninterested in, but unconcerned with - Cherry's academic achievements, which are not insignificant. She can do a great many things I consider enormously clever, none of which I have consciously taught her and none of which will define her now or in the future.

It is her emotional development that continues to preoccupy me. How I deal with her behaviour now feels vitally important because it will set out how I deal with her in years to come, when the challenges are no less great but the foundations and groundwork have already been laid.

I have written before that I don't believe in time-outs, punishment, reward charts, naughty steps, stickers and bribes. Which often leads to the question 'well what do you do then, if she's being naughty?' The behaviour we are dealing with now isn't really what I would call naughty - it's not a word I use. But it's certainly behaviour that requires some form of strategy. Here are a few ways we are approaching it:

1. Managing expectations. A lot of my expectations of Cherry were based upon a deep desire to be a good parent to her. Unfortunately I also had to accept that in wanting to be a good parent, it was quite important to me that I was seen to be a good parent. This meant I was emphasising behaviour that would make me look good - obedience, submission to my will - rather than behaviour that would lead Cherry to become the person I hope she will be. I was expecting behaviour in the short-term that would lead to personality characteristics I did not want Cherry to acquire long-term.

2. Making explanations relevant. What use was it me nagging Cherry to 'share nicely' when she had no idea what the concept meant? If I wanted Cherry to understand sharing I had to make it meaningful to her. We share water at every meal - we have one glass between two of us. Mummy has water, Cherry has water, and we talk about how we share the water. She has a frame of reference, so later on when she is screaming over the same toy both her cousins want, I can explain that we share the toy like we share the water. It doesn't necessarily stop the screaming in its tracks but it helps. I do also offer Cherry the opportunity to tidy away some toys that she doesn't want her cousins to play with, but she insists she wants to share them all even when I explain this will mean Lily and William will play with everything she wants to play with,

3. Offering a choice.  Cherry is a complete and total nightmare to dress at the moment. She doesn't want to get out of her pyjamas, she wants to remain naked, she only wants to wear four separate items of clothing in her entire wardrobe (hence these four items are always in the wash), then by the end of the day she doesn't want to put on the pyjamas she didn't want to take off at the start of the day! We do the choice within a choice. Red top or blue top? Green trousers or stripy trousers? It gives Cherry a sense of control whilst emphasising that getting dressed isn't optional.

4. Let her do it. Strong-willed children want independence immediately. Cherry is just about capable of dressing herself and letting her do it herself, coupled with the choice within the choice, usually nails getting dressed. This does mean she only ever wears wellies and I cry a little inside sometimes looking at the beautiful red leather boots I bought her for the winter which, sadly, are zipped and currently beyond her capability. It also means she only wears trousers with elasticated waists, so ditto her lovely bright red cords and a gorgeous pair of bright blue skinny jeans, because they have buttons. She helps to set the table before we eat, and she carries plates, cups and bowls through to the kitchen and helps stack the dishwasher. The more involved she is, the better.

5. Offer control wherever possible. If Cherry asks for a snack she usually gets it. No that doesn't mean she gets nonstop biscuits, but if she asks for something healthy, she can have it. I keep fruit within reach so she can help herself. I give her oranges (and Babybel!) unpeeled. I expect her to dispose of her waste in the bin and she does so. I don't constantly ask her if she needs the toilet - she knows when she needs to go. Despite a practically nonstop streaming nose, I always ask her to wipe it herself rather than swooping in and doing it myself. If she says she doesn't want a bath, I ask her to wash her face and bottom and brush her teeth and she does so. The bath issue is always resolved by the offer of a bath with Mummy or Daddy, but this isn't always practical, time-wise. To get her hair washed, a current massive pet peeve, Noel or I will bath with her and wash our hair, so she then follows suit and washes her own hair. If it's a matter of utmost urgency I will offer her the choice 'you do it or I will do it for you/pick you up and carry you'. She almost always chooses to do it herself.

6. Let her experience the consequences of her actions. But never as punishment, and always lovingly. Last week on a particularly freezing cold day Cherry chose to wear a thin and relatively short dress. And nothing else. I could not get socks, tights, a jumper, a cardigan, a coat, or boots, on her and lecturing her that 'you'll be freezing at the park in just that dress!' seemed eminently pointless. She's two, she can't yet connect the dots between being in a warm, well-heated house and a freezing cold park. So I took her to the park in just her dress, with the other items of clothing in a bag, and told her to let me know if she was cold and wanted her tights, cardigan, coat and boots.
She asked for them the second we arrived. Once she asked for the clothes I gave her them immediately and helped her dress. I didn't crow, tell her I'd told her so or make it a victory for me. I wasn't withholding the clothes as a punishment and didn't make her beg for them. You do have to be prepared to follow through, though. If she hadn't asked for her clothes I would not have forced them on her.

7. Refer to 'the rules' so she doesn't feel she's rebelling against YOU in particular. 'I know you like to be naked but in this house, we wear clothes when Lily and William come to visit.' 'I understand you don't want to tidy up but in this house, we tidy up before bed'.

8. Model the behaviour you want to see - sounds simple but it's surprising how often we don't treat our children with the very respect we expect from them ourselves. If I am asking Cherry to do something I always make sure I say please, and if she does it, I thank her.
I find 'thank you' incredible useful also when I don't want to praise, but do want to acknowledge her behaviour. So if I ask her to put something in the bin and she does so, I thank her rather than praise.

9. Understand the bond always comes first. The thing most likely to result in good behaviour from Cherry is lots of time with me. She acts up if she feels she hasn't had enough time with me, and sometimes I have to write days off as 'investment days' in which she and I reconnect. We had one such day last week, when thanks to a rotten bout of flu I had assembled a crack team of our mother's help, Noel, my sister-in-law and my parents to help keep Cherry entertained for three days while I convalesced with Violet. By the time I was well enough to resume my duties Cherry was absolutely desperate for time with me, and our first full day together was full of incredibly challenging behaviour. There was very little reward for me, we went from one maddening scenario to another. I stuck with Cherry and loved her through it. The next day, she was delightful.

10. Take a break, and credit. Cherry is impeccably behaved for her grandparents, her auntie and usually, although not always, for Noel. I enjoy time away from her, but I am raring to get back to her within hours. The same goes for Violet. Once upon a time I would beat myself up for ever wanting time away from my kids and spend the entire time I had to myself feeling guilty and like I should be back with the girls. Now I understand it's important I detach, because my emotions take a drubbing throughout the week with Cherry and they need a rest. I also love how wonderfully she behaves for others and how she delights with her singing, happy nature and charm. Whilst I know full well some would say this shows I am a hopeless parent and that all she needs is a 'firm hand', to me it shows that she knows what behaviour is considered proper, but is free to express the full range of her emotions with me secure in the knowledge she is always loved.

I would love to know your tips for managing your strong-willed children's behaviour!


  1. Great post lovely - you won't get any tips off me but i have sure got some off you :)
    To be fair i think a few of your points we do try and go by, offering choices rather than demands really works on F (at times!) and i never really 'teach' him anything. everything he has learnt stems from his own desires, i.e to count his collection of cars or whatever.
    Oh and you are obviously a much better mum than me distributing the Babybel unpeeled - lessons learnt!

    1. It's pure good fortune that often the laziest form of parenting is also the most effective! I am grateful every day for Cherry's independence. *lies back idly* * as if*