“Strong willed children become adults who can change the world as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to tame the spirit out of them.”
Recently, my husband and I took our kids to the dentist for the first time. The place was incredible. Individual iPads all propped up on a table, walls of books, a TV playing a popular Disney movie and a beautiful photograph of the new treehouse that was being built next month. Yes. IN-side the office.
When we arrived, the receptionist took us through a series of questions to get to know our two youngest, so that they could make the experience as easy and tear free as possible. She started with Grant and asked the typical questions most parents know about their child. What’s their favorite movie? Favorite character? Favorite shows? Interests and loves? G was easy. Cars 3. Optimus Prime. Anything and everything Transformers. Trucks. Riding his bike.
When it was time for Mack, she asked the first question and Ryan and I just stared at each other. With perplexed looks on our face, we muttered something about Star Wars (but only one specific movie of course), while the receptionist stared at us wondering how in the world we didn’t know the answers to her questions. Ryan picked up the fake pen that was attached to the credit card machine for virtual signatures and muttered, “This. She likes stuff like this?”
Because you see, it’s not that we don’t know Mack well, but this little strong-willed child of ours doesn’t have typical interests or favorites that most would expect with a toddler. She finds random objects like rocks, a single earring, a glass candle, a hair clip, an empty water bottle, a solid piece of copper piping, and clutches them tightly as if they’re her most prized possessions. No favorite shows or Disney characters. She’s just…random. Try explaining that to the dental receptionist without sounding like you were handed this kid on the streets the day before.
Mack is…well, Mack. She doesn’t fit into a box or a mold. She quite literally marches to the beat of her own drum. In fact, it’s more like her own damn orchestra. As I was typing this very blog post she climbed on my lap, stared at me for like 20 seconds, then licked both index fingers and swiped them down each side of my face. Then she giggled and walked away. Wtf??
When Mack stands her ground, there is no deviating from her opinion or point of view. If the toy is blue that day and not red, then that’s just how it is. If a popsicle is blazing hot, then we all play along with scorching tongues. You can imagine what it’s like to watch her do puzzles and realize that the pieces don’t bend to her will. Her favorite movies shift with her mood for the day, and if the specific choice isn’t cued to the exact second she wants, or the volume isn’t perfect, she’ll let you know. She wakes up from naps or in the morning and we all stand there, frozen, wondering what personality will come out first. If we get, “Dood mowning mommy!” then you know you’re in the clear. If you get a silent stare after telling her good morning, and she grunts back at you, it means she needs a solid 20 more minutes or so before you speak to her or make eye contact. If you hear her door open and then she fails to come out in the first 3 minutes…grab another cup of coffee, start saying the rosary, and be prepared.
If you have a strong-willed child, you know that their behaviors can’t be written off as having a “typical toddler” attitude. There are no terrible twos. There’s no phase to work through. Every single day is like rolling dice. Because here’s the thing about strong-willed children, these kids often grow up to be powerful, influential, self-reliant individuals who rationalize decisions before being influenced by others. And well, like the quote above says, if you can hang on for dear life, something pretty magical happens in the end. Every kid is different, and so is every parenting style, but here is how I try to thrive through these strong-willed years. I’m not an expert. I don’t hold a degree in child psychology, but I guess you could say I have some hands-on, front line experience. And…even if one tiny thing in this blog helps another parent out, well then, may the odds be ever in our favor right?
I choose my battles. Very. Carefully.
I used to be completely terrified to take Mack out in public. I was anxious the entire time that she would go into meltdown mode and everyone in a mile radius of her screams would stare and judge me for being an awful mother. But the thing I’ve learned about Mack is that even though her tantrums are bigger, her complaints are louder, and her stubbornness is stronger, when she feels something…she REALLY feels it. Mack doesn’t cry over scratches and boo-boos. She doesn’t whine unnecessarily. All her energy and fire is saved for moments when she is truly, in her own rational way, upset. So, I have learned which battles are simply not worth fighting. If she wants to eat dirt, then dirt it is. If I know that she is going to fall off something (and it isn’t going to cause serious bodily harm) and she refuses to get down, I allow the fall to teach the lesson. It sounds harsh, but one tiny fall always trumps arguing with her for 10 minutes about why she needs to get down. It’s almost like her brain needs to experience the consequences of her actions before she believes me. And don’t worry people, I’m not letting her run onto the freeway to see what getting hit by a car is like.
Choices always work better than commands and if she melts down in public, I let her feel what she’s feeling. If there is no reasoning with her, I will either a) continue with my task without batting an eye at passersby or b) we leave and a timeout is done in the car. It took me a while to learn that going toe to toe with a toddler never ends well. I only ever feel guilty in the end and in reality, I don’t want her to lose that fire. I want her to grow up into a woman who feels confident in saying no when it’s necessary and standing up for what she believes in, but while also learning when those outbursts are not appropriate.
I use discipline as an opportunity for a teachable moment, not to enforce power or punish.
With G, a slightly raised voice leads to tears, remorse, guilt, and more often than not, never making that mistake again. I sure do hope he finds someone who loves his sensitive heart. But Mack? No amount of yelling, anger, or frustration gets her to bend her will. This isn’t a debate about spanking, but it surely will not work with my strong-willed one. It only serves as gasoline to an already raging blaze. For us, strict timeouts are like gold. Sitting in a room by herself for two minutes is like torture to her because there isn’t an audience to watch as she goes up in flames. I do not bend on time and in the beginning, I stood strong and ensured she stayed put, even if it was in the parking lot in the car. Yes, I am the crazy mom standing outside the car, or outside her room, holding the door shut as she screams literal bloody murder.
Which leads me to my next approach. I try to talk to her like an adult. Literally. If you wanted an adult to behave in a certain manner, you wouldn’t shout or scream at them. It’s like strong-willed children are old souls stuck in a tiny body. They completely understand when you’re using toddler speak. And they ain’t cool with it. Shouts are returned with shouts but calm conversations tend to put out fires in our house. Every OUNCE of my patience is tested on some days, and I will admit, I am not perfect. Yes, I still flat out lose my shit on occasions. But, I have noticed in some ways that difficult, repeated behaviors have decreased, and now, she never tries to leave her room from timeout until I have come in and we have talked, forgiven and snuggled; meaning…there have been a few moments when I accidentally forgot about her, only to come in 20 minutes later to find her asleep on the floor. Whoops.
I love her. Hard.
As parents, we love our kids equally, but in different ways. Our love for them is molded by our individual relationship with them. Each love language is special and unique. Mack? I love her. Wildly. You see, you have to love strong-willed children with the same fire they give you. So Mack sometimes gets a few more snuggles, cuddles, and kisses, especially in her fiercest moments. But she returns that love tenfold with sprints into your outstretched arms, requests to rock her to sleep each night, and cries of “Ooooooh mommy I wuv you sooooo much!” out of nowhere. For every ounce of energy she puts into fighting, she doubles that in her energy towards loving you. So in her toughest moments, I try to double my love as well.
I love hearing stories from mamas of strong-willed children who grew up to be amazing adults. A very special mama in my life gave me that quote and every time I read it, it makes me smile.
And I say thriving and not surviving these years because every single day that Mack wakes up is a new adventure. Every moment that I spend trying to understand her strong will instead of trying to break it, turns into a moment where I watch her thrive. Even if thriving sometimes means wanting to punch people who call my strong-willed kid a “brat”. Or downing a bottle of champagne, while ugly crying in a locked bathroom, practicing my “toddler adult talk”.