Parents of older children, remember when our adorable little ones were about 6-9 months old, sitting up in their bouncy chairs or Bumbos smiling at us content as could be? Those were the days. The days before scooter accidents, tree climbing, and the dreaded strong-willed reactions to commands by parents. Looking back, this type of behavior should have never caught me off guard. With one of my kids in particular, he sat and smiled at six months old, but already had a spark in his eye and a smirk on his lips. Yes, if I really consider it, I think I knew his ornery cuteness would give me a run for my money early in his life.
All three of my children have been strong-willed at one point or another. Like I’ve mentioned before, we are never the family that goes unnoticed in any public space; one of my children is the perfect storm of cute + ornery + stubborn. I believe the fact that he is adorable makes the ornery and stubborn tolerable. He is now 8-years-old, and we are finally starting to narrow down what works most of the time with him regarding punishments and rewards.
Typically, our children’s behavior is manageable, but when it becomes too much for our happy household, I first look to the areas of their life that I can control.
Diet and Sleep
90% of the time, if my kids are having behavior problems, it is due to not getting proper nutrition. This happens quite a bit around the holidays, especially due to school parties, neighborhood gatherings and family get-togethers. My kids have almost a zero percent chance of eating a well-balanced meal, nor are they getting the right amount of sleep for their delicate systems. Maybe it’s the exhaustion that comes from that time of year, but it always takes me a while to notice the cause of the problem. Once I get some whole foods back into their diets, and get them to bed at a decent time, their behavior goes back to less than rabid.
Setting Boundaries and Sticking to Them Even with the Dreaded Public Tantrum
Some of the same behaviors that aggravate me also benefit our family. My first born didn’t really push the limits and still doesn’t to this day. He is sneakier with his obstinance, though. My middle guy came around and started to push boundaries. This was good for all of us. We realized we were too addicted to the schedule we had always kept. Our middle shakes up what we think is right, and he makes our lives more interesting. But he pushes those boundaries like nobody’s business. Bed times, leaving times, transitional periods, and any other period with a start and stop time can be pretty hard for him. With my oldest, a count down until we left a place, or a five minute warning before bed was enough for him. With my younger two, it’s like that time increment warning never happened. Like they are stuck in some sort of different kid-dimensions that parents aren’t allowed to understand. When I need to change the course of action for my younger two kids, it can become a power struggle. The challenge we have as parents is a difficult one. I have to put my foot down, but put it down lightly enough to not cause a scene in a public place.
Here’s a scenario to picture: We’ve all been there. It’s Walmart. It’s a cold and blustery day. You are on store #4 and you should have quit at store #2 because their behavior was so good an hour ago. You talk yourself into two more stores. You can do anything, right? You’re a mom. And then it happens. With a cart full of groceries and an open cashier on the horizon, a child begins asserting some sort of request or loud cry of annoyance. Apologetic, you look around for a friendly face from other parents or an empathetic smile from a clerk, and you meet the sides of heads or the dreaded…dirty look. Who are these people? Have they never dealt with a public tantrum? Where’s the village it takes to raise these kids? Our only choice as parents in this scenario is to quietly work through the problem with the child. Taking away the toy of the moment or play time once you get home may have to wait for a different struggle just so you can make it through Walmart unscathed. An eyeball to eyeball conversation is my go-to for these scenarios. But no matter what, I try to stick to my guns. It depends on the circumstance, but if I have said something will happen, it most likely will. I am not perfect here, but I stick more than I budge. I think boundaries are so important.
As a parent and a teacher, the most effective discipline for a child that has a strong will is time. If my students misbehave and waste classroom time, staying after school allows them to make up that time. If my children continuously make inappropriate choices, I will take five or ten minutes from their free time and put them to bed early. This is not without a warning first, but it will happen. As noted earlier, some of these problems can be solved with sleep. This is the most effective form of discipline that I have found.
If you’ve got the strongest willed child ever, successes are important. I remember when my middle heard me tell his big brother to go to time out for making a bad choice. My youngest was so used to being the one in time-out, for his own safety, that his 4-year-old self got territorial and said, “My time out. My time out.” I was crushed. I realized we had been doing this incorrectly. When he is particularly struggling, we try to make the successes a big deal. “You went a half an hour without whining, that is so great. Did you see how awesome that was, buddy?” or “You went a whole day without going to the safe seat AND you helped a student in class? Awesome day.” If you can find celebrations, it makes the entire process of working on behavior successful.
Finally, children (especially our most challenging) need to feel loved even when they are in trouble. This is above all the most important part. If the child knows that he or she is in a loving environment, then the other factors can fall into place. I’m not saying that this is all it takes, but aside from diet and sleep, love is the key for success for any person to thrive, but especially for children. This is certainly true for my kiddos. If they know that I want them to succeed and to make the right choices, then they are more likely to choose correctly. This is also a factor in their classrooms. My children have had the most patient and loving teachers. When they act up, it’s that feeling of genuine love they feel from those teachers that helps them make the right choices. In my own classroom, I cannot control diet and sleep for my pupils, but I can control how supported they feel as humans. The educators I work with are so skilled at helping kids professionally deal with troubling situations. It is proven that if we feel fear, it is nearly impossible for us to learn. Our brain cannot retain new information, and therefore cannot thrive. If kids know they are safe, they are more likely to make the good decision. My best friend has such a great approach to disciplining with love. When she needs her kids to soak in some understanding about choices in their lives, she begins each talk with, “One thing you need to always know is that I will love you no matter what.” What an absolutely great way to approach any discipline. What an element of safety a child must have if that is the first thing uttered by mom or dad.
New parents, if you look at your 6-9 month old with admiration, and you notice a spark in those eyes or a smirk in that smile, buckle up. This is going to be an amazing ride of will, but it is one that you will be glad you took.