I have a niece who is 18-months-old, and let me tell you: she’s already giving her mother (my sister) a run for her money!
Some kids are eager to please the grown-ups. Let’s just say that Marci is not one of them… She has always owned a big voice with an unwavering opinion–and she’s ready to fight for what she wants. (And, of course, I relate as a kindred spirit.)
I have other nieces who will shrink and tear up if you raise your voice even slightly while in their presense. But Marci? If you’re going to change her diaper or buckle her in a carseat or–Heaven forbid–take something away that she isn’t supposed to have, you must be prepared to engage in an all-out war.
I’ll admit, I have a special fondness in my heart for stubborn, firey toddlers like Marci…especially when they’re not mine, and I can send them home at the end of the day.
But my heart also goes out to my poor sister, who is not quite as calloused and battle-hardened as I have become after three years teaching in a classroom for kids with behavior disorders, plus another eight years parenting my own fiesty kids.
Tabby, my sister, constantly questions whether she’s doing something wrong.
The following will be my best recreation of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with Tabby, while she struggles to interact with her Strong-Willed Child.
The Tabby Mama: “In Marci’s whole life, she has never once just closed her eyes and slept at nap time. Not once! There’s always shouting and crying and fighting before she finally passes out!”
The “Mean” Aunty: “Yeah, I’ve had a couple of babies who do that. They just hate the nap process.”
Tabby Mama: “But it’s getting to the point where I am dreading the next day before I even go to sleep at night! I just don’t want to start another day knowing it will be full of crying and fighting constantly!”
Mean Aunty: “I understand that, too. It’s exhausting.”
Tabby Mama: “So how do I know that she’s really tired? I keep feeling like I must be doing something wrong!”
Mean Aunty: “Now, be careful with that. You can’t let her make you think that you’re wrong. Seriously, it is very, very important that you remember she needs you to set the rules and be consistent. If you start thinking maybe she’s right to be crying and fighting, it will only lead to longer crying and fighting sessions next time.”
Tabby Mama: “But it’s toooooo hard! After 15 minutes or more of trying to correct a certain behavior, I start to second guess myself. It’s easier to think that I’M wrong than to wait for her to accept my rules.”
Mean Aunty: “I know, Tabby. I really do. You are trying to take responsibility, because you’re able to control yourself better than you can control a headstrong toddler. Most of the time, it’s good to take responsibility to fix situations, because that’s the grown-up thing to do. BUT, you really have to resist the urge to take responsibility for Marci’s temper fits, because your job is to teach HER how to be a grown-up someday. It will actually be bad for her if you let her be in charge.”
Tabby Mama: “That’s not what everyone says! I’ve seen articles online that say toddlers aren’t capable of understanding cause-and-effect, or that telling them ‘no’ too often can cause them to feel unsafe and defeated…”
(To offer an example of Tabby’s point, I will pause and link to a story from the Humans of New York page which came to my attention today. A woman shared her struggle with a strong-willed daughter and how she finally decide to give the little girl some boundaries that she needed. But, some of the TOP COMMENTS were casting doubt on that decision, saying that toddlers aren’t physically able to manipulate, and when they’re crying, it always means they need something. If you’re interested to read the Mom-Shaming for yourself, click here.)
Mean Aunty: “That’s nonsense. Children NEED to be told ‘no.’ It’s an important part of their development, and a parent who won’t set and enforce boundaries is actually stunting the child’s growth. You’ve already been a child, and you’ve already learned how to respect other people. You’ve already learned to think about how your actions affect others, which is why you’re trying to change YOUR behavior instead of Marci’s. That’s the mark of a mature adult who has empathy. But Marci is still the child RIGHT NOW, and she needs to learn the same thing you once did. It’s your job to teach her that nobody likes to hang around with selfish, screaming kids.”
Tabby Mama: “Uuuuuuuuugh, I hear what you’re saying. And I know that I don’t want Marci to be a monster. It just seems like there must be an easier way! It seems TOO hard sometimes!…”
These conversations with Tabby have gone on and on for a few weeks, while she struggles with the reality of just how emotionally exhausting it is to parent well. But I’m very proud of her for understanding that “discipline” is not at odds with being a loving parent…in fact, discipline is part of love.
On Sunday, during a conversation with my dad and I, Tabby proudly said, “There was a time I couldn’t wait until Marci was older because I thought, magically, it would be easier… if I just waited a few years, I thought, I would be able to reason with her. It seemed like I could let nature take its course, and then I would be able to enjoy a grown-up Marci without having to teach her any hard lessons. But you can’t enjoy 20-year-old Marci without enduring the 2-year-old phase–she has to learn those lessons at some point.”
And–my friends–that’s a truism that’s worth repeating!
You can either teach the hard lessons now, while they are small and malleable. Or you can put it off until later, when they’re even bigger terrors. But, one way or another, you WILL have to teach the hard lessons. At some point, a child will need to learn that yelling is not a good way to control Mom/Dad. And, at some point, Mom/Dad will have to stand firm despite the tears and frustration that everyone is feeling.
Parenting is HARD.
And, unfortunately, we don’t make it any easier on ourselves or our children by trying to put off the most challenging things for later.