When my son was a newborn, he used to do this cute thing where he would shake his little fists in the air while drifting off to sleep. It was one of those involuntary newborn reflexes—like those jerks, startles, sneezes, eye rolls and smiles that all infants do. Little did we know it was his first act of defiance.
He fought us on everything, even as a baby. He didn’t want to be folded up in a baby sling. Every time we put him in, he’d straighten his legs as if to stand. He wasn’t a fan of falling asleep. Nothing worked for many months besides bouncing him on an exercise ball or walking him around in a baby carrier (that was only when he got big enough to be in a carrier that allowed for legs out). Either way, it took almost an hour to get him to sleep—and don’t worry, we read all the baby books about early bedtimes, napping regularly, looking for early sleep cues and setting up routines.
Really, no conventional parenting advice worked for him. When he was a toddler, everyone was buzzing with the idea of “redirection.” The idea is that if you don’t want your toddler to play with something because it’s dangerous, breakable or just plain annoying, you’re supposed to “redirect.” As in: “No, don’t play with those sharp scissors! Here’s a Spider-Man toy instead!” And then your kid is supposed to forget about the scissors and watch you make Spider-Man jump off the walls.
Well, stuff like that never worked for my son. He’d be stuck on the first thing, the thing he couldn’t have. He couldn’t just forget about it. And it wasn’t just toys. He would hold onto his idea of how things ought go with a vise-like grip, arguments rolling off his tongue as soon as he had enough words to form sentences.
I know that conventional parenting methods work well for some children. The above scenario with scissors and Spider-Man is something I did with my younger son the other day, and it worked beautifully, just as the books said it would. He’s the opposite of my first child. His goal in life is to please us, whereas my first child has never wanted anything of the sort.
My first son is not a bad child, not at all. In fact, he is pure delight—extremely smart, articulate and affectionate. He is passionate about the people and things he loves. He enjoys hanging out with his family and has a best friend whom he is devoted to. If there is a book series he likes, he will read it all in one sitting. He’s a big fan of computers and video games and taught himself how to make PowerPoint presentations when he was 4 years old.
When things are going the way he wants them to, he is a joy to be around. But when things don’t, he can easily blow up. He’s a hot-head with a short fuse and often has trouble listening to and considering different points of view.
He is 8 now, and each year his stubbornness becomes a little more manageable, or at least we have learned how to handle it better. Interestingly, he behaves well in school and saves most of his angst and arguments for us. I try to take that as a sign of love—that his comfort level with us makes him able to let loose and test boundaries. But it still makes parenting him difficult—sometimes harrowing.
All stubborn kids have different quirks, but here are a couple of things that have helped us over the years:
1. When we need him to do something for us and we expect resistance, we try to make it feel like he has a say in the matter. For example, when we set up an allowance system, we sat down with him and discussed responsibilities. We had him help us type them up and decide how to phrase things. Ultimately, we had the final say, but he got to feel like he had helped write the list, and therefore had some control.
2. Don’t compare him to other kids. Some children will listen to reason better than others. Some children are more flexible than others. Some children are soothed by hugs and kisses. Just because your child isn’t as compliant as another child doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. That’s just who your kid is. Believe me, I didn’t do anything different with my two children. My first child came out with his jaw clenched and his legs kicking. That’s just who he is.
3. Remember that most strong-willed kids end up being powerful, confident adults. Think attorney, activist, entrepreneur. Standing up for what you believe against all odds is a true gift. It just kind of sucks when you’re the next leader of the free world trapped in a 5-year-old’s body. Or when you’re the parent of that kid.
4. Give lots of unsolicited love and praise. My stubborn child is also my more vulnerable child. I find he doesn’t come to me for the affection he often so desperately needs. I have to seek him out—wrestle him to the ground and cover him with silly kisses. Sometimes when he’s really acting out, I find that the cure is to make sure I carve out extra chunks of one-on-one time with him.
5. Keep your own frustration in check. I find that the more I react when an argument erupts, the more heated the argument becomes. It is very easy to become frustrated or infuriated with your strong-willed child, but it is important to manage your feelings well. At times, mindful parenting books like this one have saved my sanity. Also, remember that at least some of that stubbornness comes from at least one of your child’s parents (I’m not naming names here!), so have a little empathy for both of you.
I anticipate that I ain’t seen nothing yet with this kid, and when he enters the tween and teen years, I will be writing a whole different article (after losing my mind for a couple of months). But I hope that he will continue to feel that his parents are a safe haven, that no matter what limits he feels he needs to push, what principles he needs to stick to, he can come to us to work them out. I hope that I am teaching him not only how to manage his big feelings and strong will, but also that he is loved without condition—for the beautiful, fierce, thoughtful, bright soul that he is and has always been.