Undefeated Parenting: 4 Strategies For Dealing With A Defiant Child

by Ian McCullough for Fatherly
Originally Published: 
parenting tips defiant child
Louis-Paul St-Onge / iStock

In what situation should a parent admit defeat?

I never admit defeat. Ever.

Now, if you want to know about situations where I’ve decided to strategically retreat because I realized I was in a battle not worth fighting, that’s totally different. Calling for reinforcements and rotating out with another adult while you recharge is totally different too.


Totally. Well, sort of.

Okay, it’s semantics. But it’s important semantics.

As a parent, one of the things I remain actively cognizant of is what is actually within my control. These are my parenting tips for surviving an encounter with a defiant child.

1. I cannot control whether or not my child chooses to whine or throw a fit about something, but I can control how I choose respond to it. I generally have a comparatively easy time of “going brain-dead,” not responding, and keeping a calm demeanor. My wife sometimes needs to put on headphones and listen to something else or even leave the room. (Curiously enough, when our dog starts whimper-begging, my wife is fine and I’m the one whose teeth get set on edge.)

2. Building on the first point, I can’t force my kid to use her manners. I can, however, completely ignore her request unless she asks me in a nice tone of voice and says “please,” at which point I oblige with happiness and enthusiasm. (In all seriousness, putting tremendous focus on basic manners has almost certainly paid greater dividends for us than any other parenting decision we’ve made.)


3. I cannot control if my child is asleep, but I can control whether or not she stays in her room after bedtime. We have a lockable gate across the door to her room. When we put her to bed, she can initially choose whether both the door to her room and the gate are open or closed. If she comes out of her room for anything but a trip to the bathroom, we lovingly escort her back into her room and close the gate. Then she can’t leave her room. (Adding the gate, rather than just having a lock on her door that locks from the outside, was simply a choice we made given our house. There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply using a lock.)

4. I can’t make her choose to pick up her toys the first time I ask her to do it, but I can severely limit the other things around her that might be distracting her from the requested chores. For example, I can turn off the television, because she’s still too short to reach either the controls or the mantle where we keep the remote. We installed a second deadbolt lock on our front door about 5½ feet up so we can keep her from scampering outside into the yard. These are all tools and limiters that I can use without repeating myself ad infinitum, raising my voice, or even breaking a sweat.

This is probably a good point for me to pause, lest the “It’s easy-peasy!” tenor of my answer lead someone to want to smack me for apparent sanctimony. Keeping things simple and straightforward doesn’t mean that things don’t get draining and exhausting. The toughest times are probably middle-of-the-night wake-ups when our daughter needs to be settled back down. She’s generally been a solid through-the-night sleeper, but she’s recently started having more dreams, and well, dreams can be weird experiences even for adults.

My wife and I go to sleep at different times, and it’s almost always my wife who goes to sleep first. If our daughter wakes up before I’ve gone to sleep, I’ll go in. But if it’s 2 a.m. or so, my wife is almost certainly going to be the first to wake up. The challenge in this situation is that both my wife and I value our sleep, we see the benefits of having at least one of us decently rested, and our daughter has a banshee’s vocal power.


In order to avoid having both of us awake at who-knows-when, either my wife or I will wind up in there soothing our daughter. If the person in there runs out of gas before the 3-year-old does, then the other parent will be called in for reinforcements and the parent who was in there first will go back to sleep.

Any situation that has me on the cusp of begging for mercy (or, at the very least, setting my internal parenting “pick your battles” dial to “imminent safety threats only”) almost certainly involves fatigue. I still don’t view such situations as “admitting defeat,” though. I see parenting as an 18-to-21-year endeavor to cultivate a competent adult capable of taking care of themselves, with ongoing love and support thereafter as appropriate and needed until I die. The very long view keeps me anchored.

There are setbacks and challenges—some small, some big—along the way, plus the learnings and retrenchments and adjustments that accompany such situations. But not defeat, not when victory manifests itself when I open the front door after getting home from work and my daughter sprints toward me squealing gleefully, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! My daddy! I love you!” as she throws her arms around my neck.

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