‘Why don’t you just make her?’ This is a phrase I quite often hear from people when it comes to my daughter, L. If she doesn’t want to wear a coat, or she doesn’t want to wear a certain top, or she doesn’t want to walk down the hill to the car then people sometimes look at the situation and think I should just force her to obey.
It’s an interesting perspective and not wrong – she is three years old and I am her parent, surely I’m in charge? I should just make her do what I want. So what’s the issue?
I am parenting a stubborn child.
L is bright, funny and loving, she is wonderful with her baby brother and I could not be more proud of her, but she really knows her own mind! She comes by it honestly – the women in my family are renowned for our strong wills, so I shouldn’t be surprised that my daughter is cast in the same mold. It isn’t always easy though!
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, I’m not even sure that I’m definitely making the right choices for L, but I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to why I don’t ‘just make her’ do things. So for anyone else out there raising a spirited child, I hope that these suggestions will help!
Stop trying to rule them (you can’t)
If you are blessed with a stubborn child, then you will probably soon learn that attempts to impose your will on them are often unsuccessful. The phrase ‘because I say so’ means nothing to these children. If you insist on going in to battle with them then you might win, for now, but the older they get the harder this will become.
So what can we do instead? I’ve talked before about how much positive parenting skills have been of benefit with my daughter and it has really changed the way that we relate to one another.
Stubborn kids love to be in control and to make their own decisions, so sometimes when we tell them what to do they refuse to do it just because we’ve told them to. My daughter once ate several raw cauliflower florets simply because I had told her she wouldn’t like them and she wanted to prove me wrong!
Where possible, I try to give her choices so that she feels in control – I ask her to lay out her own clothes for nursery the night before so that she can choose what to wear, or I ask her what shampoo she wants to wash her hair with.
I also step back and let her do things for herself when she wants to, even though it sometimes takes a lot longer than if I did them for her! Letting her brush her own hair and teeth makes L feel like she’s chosen to do these tasks and she is usually then happier to let me do a ‘double check’ (quickly brush them again to ensure hair is tidy and teeth actually clean!).
Working as a team with L tends to give much better results than me giving commands and it gives her less opportunity to make use of her stubbornness!
So just let spirited children do what they like then?
No. Absolutely not! I love my kids more than anything but L would absolutely rule in our household if given free rein and that’s not OK either. The last thing I want is for her to grow up spoiled!
I think that the key with L is that she has clear boundaries and they are strictly adhered to. Anything that would harm herself, another person or the area around us is not OK.
This weekend L wanted to go to the park with a friend, but she didn’t want to wear a coat. I couldn’t let her go out in the cold with no coat, it wouldn’t be good for her.
When we hit up against something that is a limit I’m not willing to change then I will try to reason with L. I’ll listen to her point of view and try to negotiate a solution we are both happy with, but if that fails then I have to set the boundary – you cannot go out without a coat.
I tried my best, with negotiating, empathising and reasoning with her, but she was adamant that she wouldn’t wear the coat. I told her that she couldn’t go without it. She cried. I explained that I was sorry she was upset and I wanted her to go to the park, but I couldn’t let her go without a coat and get cold.
In the end she agreed to wear a specific coat that she chose from the cupboard, rather than the one that I was offering.
I wasn’t punishing her by keeping her away from the park, I wasn’t shouting or trying to make her feel bad, I just explained the limit and the reason for it and she pushed up against it, before eventually suggesting a compromise that she could live with.
The things that I think matter, I am immovable on. I will listen, I will sympathise and I will try to work with her to find a solution, but I will not give in and L knows this. She still sometimes likes to test the boundaries, but most of the time she knows that if I say ‘no’ then I mean it and she then gets to choose how she handles that.
I really like that she is starting to suggest her own compromises and solutions when we disagree. I can’t always reach an agreement with her, but at least she knows that there is another approach than just digging her heels in!
Pick your battles
Setting boundaries works because most of the time I am happy to be flexible.
If L doesn’t like a perfectly nice new top then fine, it’s a bit annoying but she can wear something else. If she doesn’t want to eat her dinner, then that’s OK, she can have a piece of fruit or toast instead.
L is head-strong and stubborn and she likes to make decisions for herself. Where possible, I try to let her. The core of positive parenting is treating L with respect and acknowledging that she is an individual.
Going head-to-head with a stubborn child is difficult and exhausting. If I’m going to do it with L, then I need to know that it’s worth the battle! If it’s not a major issue, then I try to respect L’s decisions.
I hope that by teaching her how to negotiate, how to put across her opinion and how to disagree without it descending in to a fight, that she is learning skills that will help her to manage her stubbornness in the future.
I have met stubborn adults who have never learned to compromise and I don’t want L to confuse standing her ground with blind obstinacy.
Do we really want them to obey without question?
I know some people don’t like the idea of trying to ‘work with’ our children rather than tell them what to do. The more traditional take on parenting is that a child obeys a parent because the parent knows best and the child should do as she is told without discussion on the subject. I’ve heard this advice a few times and it always makes me a bit uneasy.
I don’t want L to obey without question.
She likes to know why she has to do things, she will discuss and debate things with me – “why do I need to wear a coat? It’s not that cold. What if I wear a cardigan instead? I won’t wear that coat but I’ll wear the rain jacket.”
Sometimes I just want her to put the blinkin’ coat on without all the chat, but if I spend a bit of time with her, we can usually reach an agreement. Listening to her opinion and preferences is
my way of trying to show her that her wishes matter, even if sometimes she still has to do something she doesn’t want to.
I know that she’s young, but I think it’s important that she has some freedom to make decisions, to have a say in what happens to her and to say ‘no’ to things she is unhappy with.
The recent large-scale incidents of child sexual abuse such as those in Rotherham, Telford and Rochdale really disturbed me. They made me think about the importance of teaching my children that they have rights – including the right to say no and to resist when someone older tells them to do something they don’t want to.
Obviously, I’m in no way comparing making a child where a coat with sexual abuse, but I am conscious of the message I send my daughter when I ‘make her’ do things. I don’t want my daughter to think that saying ‘no’ or refusing to do something that I have told her to, gives me the right to then force her to obey against her will.
That is not a lesson I would want her to apply in her future.
When in doubt, think about yourself
All of this can make it difficult to find the right balance between giving L freedom but still maintaining boundaries, letting her be in control but not letting her be spoiled.
I’m not always sure that I get the balance right, but when in doubt I ask myself – what if this was me?
So if L doesn’t want to wear a new top I bought her because she doesn’t like it, then I imagine that my husband’s given me a top that I don’t like, but can’t return as he’s already washed it and taken the tags off (yes, that is what I do to L’s new clothes!).
It’s OK for me not to like it and I might decide to ‘lose it’ in the back of the wardrobe. It’s not OK for me to throw a hissy fit and demand he buy me a different one. Equally, it’s not OK for my husband to forcibly dress me in it, no matter how nice he thinks it is or how keen he is for me to try it on!
These then become my boundaries for L – she can choose not to wear it but she can’t demand a different one and equally, we don’t force her to wear the top she dislikes. She gets some respect in that her choice is permitted, but we get respect in that she doesn’t get to shout or complain about the top she dislikes.
This ‘what if it was me’ approach also works for things that can’t be flexible. We all have to do things we don’t want to in life.
If L decides that she doesn’t want to go to nursery that day then that’s not really an option, but I think about the days when I don’t particularly want to go to work.
I can complain about it, I can try to do something to make it easier (for me this might be get a coffee on the way in, for L it might be taking one of her toys to nursery with her), I can remind myself of the positives (like seeing colleagues at work/friends at nursery), but at the end of the day, I still need to go.
The same is true for L, we can try to find ways to make things as pleasant and as positive as possible, but there will be times when she just has to accept that she has to do things. That is part of life and I think it’s as important a lesson as her right to say ‘no’ is.
I try to treat my daughter the way I want to be treated and I hope that this helps me to find the right balance for raising a spirited child!
Stubborn children are our potential trail-blazers
The thing about parenting a stubborn child is that their desire to make their own decisions, to figure things out for themselves and to challenge the status-quo is exactly what will stand them in good stead in the future.
I am a bit of a rule-follower. I do as I’m told most of the time and I don’t like conflict so I find it hard to say no to people. L is not like that, she’s fiery and spirited and does things her own way.
We recently went to an activity where you make a sand picture – you peel stickers off a picture, put sand on and then tip it off and the coloured sand leaves a picture behind. L did one and I helped her. When it got to the background, there was one large sticker to peel off so that the background could be a solid colour to make the rest of the picture stand out.
I peeled the sticker off and L started putting all these different colours of sand on. I kept trying to make her just do one colour like the instructions said but she resisted and did it her own way. You know what? Her way turned out so much better than how I would have done it! She had this lovely rainbow-blend effect across her picture. It was great.
Children like L who push boundaries and who question everything, who try new things, who don’t do it ‘the way they’re supposed to’ – these are the ones who might change our world. These are the inventors and the visionaries.
L may be none of those things, she may just be stubborn, but if I try to crush that spirit out of her then I’ll never know.
I hope that you’ve found these thoughts on raising a stubborn child helpful, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think!
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