Friday, October 3, 2008

Battles of Will

"It is a great mistake to command when you are not sure you will be obeyed," said Honere, Compte de Mirabeau

This morning's quote for the day reminded me of Jenny's story. Jenny was a precocious two-year-old, eagerly exploring her world to learn for herself how everything worked. With typical two-year-old zeal, she explored her own independence, as well. Wrapped in love by her parents and two adoring older siblings, and with a gregarious personality spurred by curiosity, she developed a quick wit and larger than usual vocabulary. She had been a sickly baby, and was used to being doted upon; her needs met with anxious concern by her mother.

Alvin, her father, a proud, hard-working man, who loved his children, took his job as head of the household very seriously. He had learned all he knew about parenting from his own mom and dad and the general "wisdom" of the day that said things like, "Children should be seen and not heard." "Parents, train up a child in the way it should go." "Children, obey your parents." "If you spare the rod, you'll spoil the child." "It is the parent's responsibility to break the will of a strong-willed child." What he didn't know is that in a battle of wills between a parent and a child there is no winner. It is a lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

It was dinner time on the ranch, dinner being the noontime meal and the biggest meal of the day for a family that rose early to milk the cows before beginning work in the fields. The family sat around the kitchen table enjoying the pleasant repast—until jenny, in her high chair—said, "I want more milk." Mom replied, "What do you say, Jenny?"
"I want more milk," the two year old repeated. "No, Jenny, I meant you need to say please." A flash of understanding radiated Jenny's face for a split second before it reddened slightly. It was as if she thought. "Oh, yeah. They shouldn't have had to tell me that." But that expression quickly changed to a look of determination as she thought again. "Why should I have to say please to get my milk? I never had to before."

"Jenny, your mother told you to say please, now say it." Alvin ordered, resting his hand on his wife's arm as she reached for the pitcher of milk. He couldn't let this little girl disobey her mother. He'd have a rebellious child on his hand if he didn't nip this problem in the bud.

Jenny shook her head, stubbornly. "Jenny, say please right now, or I will have to spank you," Alvin commanded.
"No!" Jenny said, alarmed at the way her simple request for milk was turning out, but determined not to back down. Didn't they owe her the milk? Wasn't it hers for the asking? She was not going to beg for it.

Alvin rose from his chair, hoping that the motion would be all it would take to put fear into the toddler and evoke the desired response. It didn't. Neither did lifting her from her highchair. "Are you going to say please, or am I going to have to spank you?"
Jenny, wide eyed, refused. Surely her daddy wouldn't hurt her. He never had before. A simple swat didn't elicit the desired, "please." Jenny only cried out in alarm. Alvin was determined. He had gone this far. How could he possibly back down without appearing weak in front of his children; without giving them the upper hand? Letting her win would teach her and her watchful siblings that they didn't have to obey. The blows got harder until Jenny was crying so convulsively that she couldn't have spoken a word if she had wanted to. Defeated and angry, Alvin put her to bed and closed the bedroom door with the futile command to Jenny to "Quit crying!"

"Don't go in there or let her come out until she quits crying and says she's sorry," he told his family as he went outdoors. Back at work, he felt worse about himself and his job as a parent than he ever had before.

Jenny was left to sob convulsively until she fell asleep in exhaustion. When she awoke, she was changed. Her mother would tell her in later years that the difference was night and day. Jenny was no longer outgoing and happy, but subdued, shy, withdrawn and even functionally mute much of the time. "It's as if your spirit was broken that day," her mother said. And indeed, it was; broken beyond repair.

The best lesson we can glean from this true story is to carefully and completely avoid battles of will. There are better ways. Whenever possible, give the child choices. Let her be the one to make the decision. When my grandson refuses to brush his teeth, I ask, do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want me to brush them for you? He will choose one or the other, and either way the result is that his teeth get brushed. The same with washing his face and hands, picking out his clothes for the day. When he refuses to dress himself, his mom might say, "Do you want to get dressed now and eat breakfast with us, or do you want to sit in time out first?" It's his choice, and he usually chooses to dress right away. If not, and his breakfast is late, the consequence is the result of his own choosing. He learns that it is he who controls the outcome, for better or worse.

As adults, we often underestimate our children's ability to understand. If we take the time to explain to them why we are asking them to do something, or why we are refusing a request, they will find it easier to accept. They might tell you, if you listen, where they are coming from on the issue, and at times, you may see that they are right. Communication beats "Because I said so!" at least 95% if not all of the time.

A parent should carefully consider whether an issue is worth a confrontation. In the case of Jenny and the milk, I don't think it was. If the parents had said, "Of course you may have milk, Jenny. But you know what? Big people always say, please, when they ask for something. It's called being polite. You may want to try it next time." Or, better yet, just give her the milk and say nothing. I have observed that children adopt the polite words on their own by observing and imitating the adults around them. It's what kids naturally do.

"With a strong willed child it's more about communication than control. We are all given free will- a strong willed child just seems to have discovered it a bit sooner than we would have liked. When a strong willed child is presented with commands, rather than choices, his default behavior will be to buck authority because he feels like his choices have been taken away. Giving a strong willed child two choices you can live with, works better than a command. 'We need to go, do you want to wear shoes or sandals?' works better than 'Put on your shoes,'" author and America's Nanny, Michelle LaRowe suggests at where you'll find more expert advice on parenting the strong-willed child.

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