Let’s start with this: I was not a strong-willed child. I was the picture of compliance. Family folklore says I sailed right through the terrible twos, and the greatest points of contention were the challenges of getting me to wear underwear when I had decided I wouldn’t anymore, based on my strong case that Cookie Monster and Big Bird didn’t either. I was an easy kid, albeit sometimes commando.
While other parents say through gritted teeth, “I hope you get one just like you someday,” my parents cooed those same words with a gentle and hopeful tone. I was easy and delightful, willing to taste new foods, ready to obey, and born to comply. School came easy because I loved few things more than structure, routines, and supplies to organize. That’s what they all say.
But since we don’t get to put in special orders for the kids we’ll raise, and since some things just happen despite all your best plans for what you absolutely will and definitely won’t do, I’m parenting a strong-willed child. I have become well versed in the throwdown of the tantrum. Here’s what it looks like in my head when things start to unravel around us.
1. “Well, here we go” – The Trigger
Anything can set off a strong-willed child. Some triggers are as predictable as they are unavoidable, and others I just couldn’t see coming. Example triggers include: running out of string cheese; confiscating the iPad; putting a bookmark in Harry Potter instead of reading the entire series at one bedtime sitting; expecting him to wear a seatbelt; asking him to put on pants; negotiating two more bites of his favorite yogurt.
2. “Try to understand me, Kid” – The Rationalizing
This is the stage when I try to talk us both through this, believing that if he’ll just hear me and understand why the string cheese is all gone or why he needs to put on pants or just freaking eat some of his dinner, then we can all get along. I forget in this stage that there is so little to rationalize, that his cognitive abilities have a one-sided reasoning, that maybe we will have conversations in another life stage. But still I try. God knows I try.
3. “Enough” – The Last Chance
This is when I remember that I’m the adult, and I’m both in charge and responsible for this child based on the power vested in me by God and the state of Colorado. I stop explaining myself, and I tell him how this is going to go. This stage usually involves gestures with eyebrows and pointed fingers to emphatically declare the last chance for obedience. This is also when I do an internal cost-benefit analysis, weighing the fortitude required against the actual available strength, picturing him as an adult without the skills this lesson will teach. I determine whether I am willing to apologize to his future wife for letting this one go.
4. “All right. That’s it. Game ON” – The Point of No Return
One of the surefire truths of the strong-willed child is that he will be the one to decide where and when the battle lines are drawn. You don’t have to take the bait, and wisdom says choose your battles carefully. But if you engage in the war zone, you have to win. Comparable to a duel in an old-timey Western, this is where we draw our weapons. The truth is, whoever wins this will be the one with greater fortitude for the next battle, and they only get bigger, with higher stakes. So we’re both highly motivated. Clearly realizing I’m in the front lines, now I must win. This is not a time for Google or Pinterest Parenting Tips. It’s every man for himself in this stage.
5. “It’s gonna’ cost you, buddy” – The Currency
Dr. Phil, the epic sage that he is, says you’ve got to find your child’s currency, the one thing he’s willing to spend or save with his behavior. What must I take away to make him feel the heat of discipline? The solitude of time-out. The utter desolation of being banished from technology. I lay down consequences that only multiply as the battle rages on.
6. “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Winner” – The Bell
He shows me his greatest anger, and I show him I’m not afraid of it. He shows me his volume and fortitude, and I show him predictable consequences. While he is fierce and loud, I try to be quiet and unmoving, but let’s face it… sometimes I’m fierce and loud too. The thing is, I so deeply long to channel this mighty wind inside of him. There is a flicker of hope that he’ll someday use this strong will to be a mighty leader, but there is also a very current and present power struggle that I cannot lose. This stage is usually accompanied by my actual words in a calm, steady voice: “I. Will. Win. This.” Until I do.
7. “Apologies all around” – The Aftermath
When it’s all said and done, when his spirit is tender and we’ve found our way through the Dark Forest of Mutual Grievances, there’s always this part of me that wants to give in. In part, I want to show him that I meant what I said; but I also want my threats to have just been words. I’m a peacemaker at heart, so when the waters are still again, I’m prone to forgive. But fear not, Leman and Dobson, I’ve read your parenting books. I know that when I negate the consequences, I’ve earned nothing. It’s just that he’s so sweet again, downright cute, and I’m so tempted to reward him just for settling down. That’s the tricky territory: standing my ground when I just want to kiss him on his noggin and say, “I just love you, buddy. That’s all. I just love you, and I want everything awesome for you.” Such words have their place, but they don’t teach the hard lessons.
8. “Circle Back” – The Revisit
Later on it’s all behind us and it becomes a memory nobody wants to revisit, but that’s actually exactly what we need to do: revisit the moment. Studies have shown that a child is much more likely to make a better decision next time if I revisit the conversation and talk about what he could have done differently, shortly after all the dust has settled. I usually try to involve string cheese or his favorite yogurt, his favorite foods and love languages, though they are perhaps the very culprits that started this whole big fat mess to begin with.
Golden are the days when such battles lie dormant. But they are few and far between. On the bad days, I’ve been known to say through gritted teeth, “I hope you have one just like you someday.” On the peaceful days of sidewalk chalk and songs in the car and joyful spirits soaring free, I ruffle his hair and coo those same words, truly hoping he’ll know both sides of the coin.
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