In my late twenties, I found myself opening and directing a preschool center for our church in their new building in downtown Honolulu. I already had a degree and license as a public school teacher, but soon found out that I needed more training in early childhood education to be effective in the preschool / childcare realm. I began attending night classes at the local college, and I’m so glad I did, because it affected my parenting as well.
Early childhood education opened my eyes to what they call the developmentally appropriate practices of young children, specifically from zero to five years old. I will never forget the night I had the biggest “aha” moment of my educational career – my professor challenged us to look at our personal biases regarding children and behavior. I remembered my mother telling me that while she was growing up, it was a common unspoken rule that children were to be “seen and not heard,” kids were essentially shoved to the side during adult gatherings or made to shut-up by any means necessary.
So what did that instill in our generation? That children who are quiet and compliant are the “good” ones, and if a child acted out of that order, he or she was “naughty” and/or their parents were inconsistently disciplining them or not at all. I learned that the phrase, “Bad boy / girl” should never be used as a label for children as it is counterproductive to their correction and growth.
It made sense, and I had to admit, I’ve caught myself thinking poorly of other children when they were acting up or if that parent didn’t settle them down right away. Mind you, these judgments were most common before my own bundles of joy arrived. (It’s funny how we are the experts on child behavior without having been in a parental role).
At this point in my career, my daughter was three my son was two, and they both attended the preschool where I worked. I’ll save the stories of that situation alone for another post, but for this purpose, I will say that the insecurities I was having about my son’s “typical boy” behavior began to subside that evening. I worried about what others thought of my son when he was bouncing off the walls, being unnecessarily loud, not obeying the first, second, or third time he was called, refusing to be potty trained, and he was the class biter.
From every direction I look at his upbringing in our home, he has been treated no differently from our daughter, who is also the firstborn female and very yielding. My son is now six and still can be as stubborn as ever, though not necessarily defiant. He gets an idea and wants to run with it (sometimes literally, and into a potentially dangerous situation), but his first response to correction always seems to communicate, “I’ll prove to you I can do it…just watch.” It’s may sound strange, but I can see that the majority of his actions have stemmed from more of an inner confidence than the will to be maliciously disobedient. He is the quintessential Strong Willed Child.
I admire the works of Dr. James Dobson in this particular area of study; his research findings are fascinating. But I also like what Cynthia Ulrich Tobias says in her book, You Can’t Make Me: But I Can Be Persuaded,
“Strong will, in and of itself, is a very positive trait…A strong-willed person is not easily daunted or discouraged, holds firm convictions, and doesn’t often accept defeat. A person using strong will in positive ways is fiercely loyal, determined to succeed, and often extraordinarily devoted to accomplishing goals.”
Parenting with Love and Respect
What I have found, especially in the hearts of little boys, is that they are hard-wired to respond positively to respectful correction. Traditionally and based on how our society’s expectation of girls up until 30 or 40 years ago, girls tend to me more compliant, but I write this with the understanding that if you have the opposite situation, it is completely normal as little girls can be as equally spirited. The concept of birth-order may be interesting to you as another factor that affects a child’s behavior. (I highly recommend Dr. Kevin Lehman’s The Birth Order Book.)
Picking my battles
My son will often push the envelope and finish the last thing he was doing, or touch the thing I told him not to touch anyway, just because he needs to complete the task on his mind first, almost as if to say, “See Mom, this was my idea… see it actually works when I do it this way…” He has to be right, and I have to question my will to discipline him as if he was wrong just because he disobeyed me. I tell you, this is not always the case. I have lost my temper quickly when he has challenged my direction, but what I have come to recognize is my personal parental motivation, and whether my ego is more important that his growth opportunity.
The other night we were reading a bedtime story, and my daughter sat up against her pillow and looked at pages with me, while my son sat up on his head with his butt up in the air, rolling his head from side to side. Did he hear the story? Yep, every word. His body just needed time to wind down.
Kim Sorgius says in her blog, Not Consumed:
“We’re quick to judge kids and assume that if they don’t sit like stoic church mice they simply can’t learn anything. It’s not true. In fact, the truth is, kids who don’t sit still bother the teacher, parents, and sometimes the other students. They aren’t hurting themselves at all. The problem is us.”
Watching My Own Bias
My personal freedom came when I focused in on my own family, stopped caring about what others were thinking, and I began to see my son for who he really is. He does have tons of energy, and now that I help him to channel it in positive ways, my anxiety has subsided. I am no longer on edge when he says something obnoxious in front of others or acts out, I simply use it as a learning opportunity. I’ll get on his level and say calmly and sternly:
“Son, please make a choice to calm your body, you don’t need to yell,” or
“Son, please find a kinder way to say that, ” or
“Hey, that’s not necessary, think about how your friend feels before you say/do something like that.”
It often brings him back to reality, he takes pause (even if for a second), and his responses to me are much softer. He has become a much more thoughtful and compassionate child since I changed my response to him – or maybe he was always that way and I just wasn’t helping him to channel those positive traits. This learning process has certainly made me more empathetic with other active children and a more confident mother of my own.
I hope that this can be an encouragement to you today to really see your child. Never mind the looks or comments from other people; you know your child best. Bring out the best in them by believing the best in them, and honor their strengths as you introduce appropriate boundaries. Odds are they are not naughty, they were just born to lead.