You’ve heard all the same ideas about how to make the strong-willed child more cooperative, but parenting isn’t always discipline. I’ve got 11 surprising tips that will make a big difference with a little effort.
Here we go. I see that look of defiance in her eyes. Her feet just sprouted roots that run 10 feet into the ground. Her fists ball up in determination to NOT do the thing I just commanded her to do.
Another time I see her glance sideways as I utter a sharp, “No.” Her lips purse and her eyebrows raise slightly as if to say, “Oh, yah?” I can hear the silent retort, “Challenge accepted,” as she quickly maps her plan to do exactly the thing I just forbade.
Do you have a child like this? A determined child whose favorite thing to do is the opposite of what you want her to do? I have two of them, and while they have many, many wonderful qualities, they are also my most challenging children of the six.
Over the years I’ve learned that the best ways to get better behavior from my children is to change MY behavior. Things that I do (or don’t do) trigger them, or set them up for failure, and then I get mad and they get in trouble. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t be responsible for their choices, because they are. But they are also young, learning, and experimenting.
Childhood is a training period, and I know adults who haven’t mastered cooperative behavior, so why do we (I) expect more of a 7-year-old than I expect of myself? Because I am a flawed human being who is in a training period of adulthood and parenthood.
11 Surprising Tips that will make the strong-willed Child More cooperative
Don’t Ask Yes or No Questions. If you don’t want to hear the answer, “No,” then don’t ask a yes or no question. “Do you want scrambled eggs for breakfast?” No. Some kids will say no just for the thrill of it. So do some adults. Instead I say, “Here are your scrambled eggs.” “Do you want to put your shoes on?” No. Instead I say, “Let’s get your shoes on.” “Are you ready to go to bed?” That will get a NO every time! “Let’s get your jammies on.”
Say No By Saying Yes. Ever since my 4-year-old had the stomach flu 7 months ago, she has one request. “Mommy I want some Sprite!” Instead of winding up for a lecture, “No, I gave you Sprite because you were throwing up and I wanted to keep your blood sugar up and your electrolytes balanced, but we don’t drink that everyday because…”, I say, “You can have some water. I’ll help you get it.”
When my son asks, “Mom, can I go to my friend’s house today? He lives (far enough that I’d have to drive him).” I say, “You can go play with Brady for an hour.” Brady lives down the street.
How many times do I hear, “Mom can I play a video game?” I hate the effect of video games on my kids’ behavior. “You can get out the new card game I bought.” Or, “See if you can build pirate ship out of your Legos. Instead of saying no to the thing they can’t do, I say yes to something they can do, and they usually see it as a win.
Offer 2 Choices. We all want to feel control over our lives and circumstances. By dictating every aspect of our children’s lives, they feel smothered and rebellious. Wouldn’t you? By offering two choices that are acceptable to you, you are giving them control while still directing things. They can be stupid things. Do you want your eggs on a plate or in a bowl? Which fork do you want? Even though they are all identical my preschooler relishes the choice of her utensil. Do you want to wear this shirt of this shirt? Do you want your doll to sleep with you or not? Keep it limited to two choices so they aren’t overwhelmed, and do it all day long.
Say Yes Whenever Possible. I find that as a mom to six kids I’ve developed a No Reflex. No matter what they ask, I’m ready to say no. The truth is, there are a lot of things I can say yes to because, while I personally wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to bed, it’s not hurting anything to let my son do it. Yes it will get the sheets kind of dirty, but how clean are they really? A little boy sleeps in them. And we wash the sheets on Mondays anyway. You want to dip your bacon in ketchup? Have at it. You want to wear your underwear backward so you can see the picture? Your choice.
One day I dropped my kids off at preschool and their teacher said, “WOW!! Your kids all look so nice today!” Well that’s because I chose their outfits and did their hair myself because it’s picture day. I’ve let my kids pick out their outfits ever since they were old enough to express their opinion. They don’t look like a magazine spread. They look a hot mess, to be honest, but they love the freedom of expression and choice. My daughter has been styling her hair 100% on her own since she was eight, and now that she is nearly 11, it’s starting to look pretty decent. I’m sure her teachers thought I was a negligent mother, but it was important to her, so I let her do it. I put aside that nagging thought, “What will people think about me?”
You want to wear your super hero cape to the grocery store? Cool. You want to sit under the chair to eat your snack. Ok. You want 7 pony tails? Get me the elastics. Kids come up with some pretty absurd ideas, but as long as it’s not dangerous or causing a real problem, I try to remember to say yes. They are experimenting and learning. Life is a laboratory.
Save Up for When You Need a Moment of Control. You would think that allowing all this freedom would mean that when you do need them to do something your way they will be defiant, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s like making a deposit in a savings account, and now it’s time to make a withdrawal. Sometimes I remind them, “I usually let you choose your own outfit and style your own hair, but for family pictures it’s my turn to choose. Thanks.”
Assume the Sale. This is a sales technique, but by assuming compliance and moving forward confidently they are more likely to follow. Whatever I’ve asked them to do, I move in that direction. “Let’s get in the car, it’s time to go!” I head to the car, buckle up and start the engine. I’ve occasionally gotten as far as backing out before the last one appears, but they always come. If I’m dealing with a little one, I’ll take her by the hand or pick her up and head to the car.
“It’s time to clean up.” I start cleaning up. If that doesn’t spur action, I give direction. “Please put the cars in the bucket.” “Please put this shirt in the hamper.” “Please do your zone.” The younger they are, the more specific the task I give them, and I always move forward with the actions and assumption that they are going to obey. Never ask them permission, “Is it ok if we clean up?” Or ask it in a yes or no format. Don’t ask. Period. Be matter of fact, and positive.
Give a 5-Minute Warning. I am a very one-track thinker, and I don’t transition quickly. I need a few minutes’ warning to switch tasks. A lot of people do, including kids. Most of the time we know a direction change is coming, but we don’t bother to mention it to our kids. We simply tell them we’re leaving. Come inside. Come eat. Go to bed. It makes all the difference to say, “We are leaving in 5 minutes.” “Dinner is in 5 minutes.” “You need to come inside in 5 minutes.” “Bedtime is in 5 minutes.” It gives them time to adjust and switch lanes.
Use Polite Language. Please and thank you go a long way with everyone. Kids will talk to you and to each other they way you talk to them. Ask nicely. It’s easy to get into drill sergeant mode, especially when you are outnumbered, but it makes them more resistant.
Praise the positive. When I lived in Brazil, it was a whole new world. Everything was different, right down to how to take a shower. For several months, the only time my roommates spoke to me was to tell me what I had done wrong in the apartment. I was also learning a new language, and the only comments were on my mistakes. It was so disheartening, and I felt like I never did anything right.
I was an adult; imagine how hard that is to hear as a child.
As a perfectionist, I tend to see what HASN’T been finished, what’s wrong, what they missed. And I tend to only point out those things. “You haven’t brushed your teeth/done your dishes/finished your homework/made your bed.” I’ve been working really hard on saying, “Thanks for getting dressed. Please comb your hair.” Instead of a critique of what they are failing at, I praise first, then make a polite request. I’m a down to business, let’s get going, to the point, efficient girl, and this takes concentrated effort on my part.
Reframe No Into an Action Statement. Has anyone ever told you NOT to do something and you thought, “But what am I SUPPOSED to do?” I think kids feel that way a lot. What seems obvious to us is not always obvious to them. Rephrase so you’re telling them what you want them to do, instead of telling them what not to do. Instead of “Don’t jump around like a maniac.” Try, “Please keep your feet on the floor.” Instead of, “No yelling!”, try “Please keep your voices as quiet as mine.” Because yelling is relative if you are a kid:
“IS THIS NOT YELLING?”
“HOW ABOUT THIS?”
“Is This Ok?”
“Can I talk like this?”
“(oh you meant this. got it.)”
Focus on Their Positive Qualities. So many of my daughter’s teachers and authority figures adore her. I mean they ask to adopt her, or at least borrow her for a while. My thought is usually, “That’s because you don’t live with her.” She is sparkly, vibrant, affectionate, funny, befriends everyone, and makes you feel special. I have to stop and change my glasses. I take off the critical glasses that see her challenging behaviors and put on my love glasses. I try to focus on her many, many, many wonderful qualities. It’s not always easy, but when I do, she soaks up every last bit of it.
How to do this
Change is overwhelming. Don’t tackle this whole list at once. Pick one, whichever one you think will make the biggest impact with your children and focus on that for a month until it becomes natural. Then pick another one to try out. Don’t beat yourself up. That doesn’t help. Pick one and move forward. Apologize to your kids and hug them.
I’m far from perfect as a parent. Even though I know all these tips and practice them at times, I slip into drill sergeant mode when I’m in a hurry, stressed, overwhelmed, tired and outnumbered, which is 99% of the time. Then my kids start digging in their heels and it gets even harder, and I get madder and they get in trouble and it’s a vicious cycle that I can break. That’s when I stop and make a conscious direction change. I apologize to my kids for being being an evil dictator, and I start over.
If you want more help, my favorite resource is this book. If there were ever an owner’s manual for people, this is it. I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s not just helpful with children, it’s helpful for all the people in your life. If I could only have one parenting manual ever, this would be it. The author has a podcast and a website full of helpful content here.
I wrote this post as a reminder to myself of the ways I am a better parent when I am a conscious parent. My daughter has been really defiant lately, and I know it’s because I’m not doing my part. She is telling me through her actions that I’m not getting this right. Instead of balling up my fists and saying, “Too bad! I’m the mom and you have to do what I say cause I’m the boss of you!” I say, “Challenge accepted.” I can do better.