The Strong-Willed Child

Long before I felt ready for children, I recall my sister-in-law mentioning a book called The Strong-Willed Child. I’ve just found it on Amazon:

She was offered the book by her sister when her first two children were around two and four years old. She laughed and declined the offer to borrow it, declaring that the term “strong-willed” did NOT apply to her two boys. Then her third son came along. He is now five years old and I’ve heard her say that if he hadn’t come along, she’d think parenting was a breeze and would have found it difficult to empathize with parents who thought otherwise.

I’ve had a suspicion for a while now that The Princess might perhaps be a little more willful than the average child, but at the same time I’ve witnessed that most babies and toddlers have minds of their own and want what they want when they want it. With that in mind, I’ve been reluctant to explain every tantrum and act of stubbornness with the lame, veiled apology of “What can I say? She’s just very strong-willed, everybody!”

In terms of discipline, based on how upset I feel when I am around unruly and, especially, cheeky, children, I thought I’d be a really strict parent. But somehow, on an hourly and daily basis, implementing the intention to be strict is so much more exhausting than I could ever have imagined. And therefore, so far, I suppose I haven’t been particularly strict with The Princess. Sometimes I think that this is not such a big deal and other times, I get the sense that I’m only creating problems for myself later. The handful of times I’ve spoken sternly to her and really meant what I said, she has completely and utterly ignored me – or screamed her head off if it involves taking something away from her or taking her away from a situation. I thought that perhaps she’d take The Husband seriously. So far, however, stern words from him yield no better response than the same words from me.

I used to think that she was too young to really understand being reprimanded or too young to understand what she done wrong, but I’m currently ready ​French Children Don’t Throw Food​ and this book has totally changed my view on what The Princess can and can’t understand.

The book is a “study” (though much of it is anecdotal) of the differences between child-rearing approaches in France (where the American author is raising her young children) and in Anglophone countries (notably Britain and America). The book points out a series of notable differences between the generally more neurotic, overzealous, competitive parenting amongst Anglophones and the more ​relaxed, less child-centric approach (which still includes firm boundaries and a large framework of rules and social norms) apparently ingrained in French society. I firmly and wholeheartedly relate to most of the attributes the author conveys upon Anglophones – herself included. One key difference that Druckerman notes is that the French (or Parisians, as her experience is limited to the middle- and upper-class arrondissements of Paris) assume that their babies can/ soon will, understand basic instructions. She gives an example that really hit home for me, in this respect:

…when Bean (the author’s child) is about ten months old…she begins pulling herself up in front of a bookcase in our living room, and pulling down all the books she can reach. This is irritating, of course. But I don’t think I can stop her. Often I just pick up the books and put them back. But one morning, Simon’s French friend, Lara, is visiting. When Lara sees Bean pulling the books down, she immediately kneels next to Bean and explains, patiently but firmly, “We don’t do that.” Then she shows Bean how to put the books back on the shelf, and tells her to leave them there. Lara keeps using the word doucement – gentlyI’m shocked when Bean listens and obeys.

I read this about ten days ago and I really believe that I’ve spent far too long assuming that there is still so much The Princess is too young to understand. If she had happened to develop a penchant for pulling books off a low bookshelf, I certainly would have assumed at ten months old – and probably alot beyond that age – that she wouldn’t really and truly grasp that “we don’t do that”. Now I find myself saying “we don’t do that” to her all the time… I feel like it’s sinking in for all manner of minor transgressions so far… It’s empowering 🙂 Small things amuse full-time mothers…

Last night, however, The Husband was in our hotel bathroom and he heard an unusual sound: the sound of me speaking very seriously and very firmly to The Princess who’d just willfully destroyed a puzzle piece. He came out to witness this unusual interaction. When he realised what had happened, he also spoke sternly to her. She simply looked at us as though we were stark raving mad or – if she understood her transgression (which I’m pretty sure she did) – she looked at me as though she couldn’t give a rat’s arse that I disapproved of what she’d done. I got the distinct impression that she’d done it because it was fun for her and that she’d do it again in a heartbeat if she felt so inclined. Our interpretation of her reaction sent The Husband into a neurotic Anglophone-style panic with respect to our unsuccessful attempts at disciplining our child. He wanted us to take this discipline thing WAY more seriously…

This morning I was presented with the perfect opportunity. I was fresh from as decent a night’s sleep as one can be when one sleeps in the same room as one’s toddler. The Princess and I were almost ready to leave our hotel room to go down for breakfast when she made to empty a Ziploc bag with about 120 fairly small, puzzle pieces onto the bathroom floor. I told her she was welcome to continue, but that she’d need to put them all back.

I feel exhausted even attempting to write about what ensued. In short, it was a 45 minute battle of wills between myself and my 21 month old toddler. No matter how many times I explained that we would only exit the bathroom once she’d put the puzzle pieces back into their packet, she willfully and flatly refused to do so. I remained calm throughout and never raised my voice. All through numerous tantrums and crying fits, I patiently sat and waited for her to do as I asked. The Husband supported my trying to discipline our child and confirmed that she understood perfectly what was required – she simply refused to co-operate because that would be giving in. But after 45 minutes he felt that we’d made our point and called the battle a “draw”. The actual results were as follows:

Six love to The Princess in: the First Epic Battle of Wills.

I think I may need to download The Strong-Willed Child for the next few days of beach reading…