How (not) to train your dragon, I mean toddler

I had a parenting realization the other day: Monkey is the perfect child for an anarchist. I say this because I am finding, again and again, that all of my authoritarian impulses completely – completely – backfire with him. Which is just as well, because I don’t want to be an authoritarian parent or person. I’m more than happy for those impulses to fail and die.

Monkey is what I would call “a strong-willed child.” (I use the term “strong-willed” rather than the supposedly more positive term “spirited” because it gives a sense of his solidity. He’s less like a cheerleader and more like a goalie, standing in one place, defending his autonomy from all directions.) Everything must be on his terms. He hates any sense that he is being coerced or asked to perform. The more he senses you want him to do something, the more determined he is not to do it – and if you get into a power struggle with him, you will lose.

This can be quite amusing at times. For instance, he has one therapist through early intervention who likes to tell him to do things. (His other therapists have figured out that this backfires.) “Draw a line. Stomp with your foot like this. Bring me the octopus.” Monkey’s response to such commands is to give the therapist a blank look that says, “I’m soooo developmentally delayed that I have no idea what you’re asking me to do.”*** Yesterday the therapist looked at me and said, “I can’t tell if he understands what I’m asking,” and I burst out laughing. He totally understands, and he can do it, he just won’t do it if you tell him to.

Of course, it’s less funny when he breaks away from my hand and runs giggling into the parking lot, giddy with freedom. Or when he won’t eat or take a nap. Or when he runs away every single time (Every. Single. Time.) that I tell him we need to change his diaper or go somewhere. Or when he insists on getting up at 4:30 AM every morning.

I first discovered the strength of his persistence when I tried “crying it out” as a method of sleep training. Doctors assured me it would work. It didn’t. He had an amazing ability to get increasingly hysterical over the course of hours. I gave up, tried a much gentler form of sleep training, and had better success. My attempt to coerce him into sleeping just made him determined not to sleep at any cost.

Because of his feeding delays, he still drinks from baby bottles. I’ve lost count of the number of doctors and nutritionists and others who have told me in the past year to “just take away the bottles.” Now, I understand that this does work with many children, and that’s cool. But for Monkey, I have always instinctively known that it’s a really bad idea, for three reasons:

1) He has a history of breathing and swallowing problems. There are real medical concerns about his ability to drink from certain types of cups, including most sippy cups.

2) He has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not do well with big changes. Incremental change works better.

3) He is strong-willed.

The combination of these three factors led me to believe that if I simply “took away the bottles,” I would find myself in a power struggle which I would inevitably lose as my two-year-old decided to starve/dehydrate himself rather than be coerced into uncomfortable drinking methods. Last week, though, the professional pressure finally got to me, and I tried taking away the bottles for a day.

Guess what happened?

Yep. Cranky, dehydrated toddler. Shamefaced mother trying to figure out a way to get out of what I started without losing all semblance of authority. I finally made the giant mistake of telling him he could watch Daniel Tiger only if he took one sip – just one freaking sip! – of milk through a straw. (Which is, of course, a completely arbitrary setup.) He didn’t even throw a tantrum; he just set his jaw and sat there determinedly staring at the frozen screen. At that point I really really wanted to get out of the stupid power struggle I’d started and just let him have a bottle. I also wanted just a little bit to smack him. Instead, I took him to the library to play. He drank his milk through a straw in the car on the way there. All it took was a change of scene and me not pressuring him.

We are now trying a different method, which is working much better. The method goes like this: Monkey gets one bottle of milk when he wakes up and one bottle of milk before he goes to bed. In between that, he gets a choice between milk in his special straw cup (made by Ark Therapeutics, who are awesome) or water in a transitional soft-spout sippy cup which is very similar to a bottle. Why is this working? It’s an incremental change – he still gets the comfort of his bottles twice a day – and he is empowered with choices. He can choose between his favorite drink (milk) in his less-favorite cup (straw) or his less-favorite drink (water) in his favorite cup (similar to a bottle). From his point of view it’s a somewhat frustrating choice, but it’s still way better than choosing between Hillary and Trump and his resistance is minimal. When that resistance is gone and he’s used to the new routine, I will switch out the morning bottle, and finally the bedtime bottle.

Some people will think this is permissive parenting. But it’s not permissive, because there is structure and consistency.

But I get it. I grew up with a permissive mother and a father whose methods tended to be authoritarian. He’s also a highly conscientious person, and I drew a sense of security from the boundaries he set even as I fought them, so there’s a part of me that says, “My dad held my head under running water for disobedience, so that must be good parenting!” But the other part of me – the part of me that remembers being a four year old sobbing with rage and hatred and humiliation after a spanking, the part that remembers being a teenager refusing to get in the car with my dad after a public fight, trying instead to walk home (it was miles) and watching him drive away just so he could win the power struggle – that part knows that it’s not how I want to parent my child. Because it doesn’t work.

See, I was a strong-willed child, too. I was never able to submit to authority. I challenged my parents. I embarrassed my teachers by pointing out their mistakes. I picked essay theses that I knew would upset the person grading them. Sometimes I’d argue the opposite of what I believed, just to make it more interesting. I thrived on contradiction and debate. I still do. Ultimately, despite some authoritarian tactics, my parents always encouraged me to think for myself and to take responsibility for my choices. I still have a relationship with them because those attempts from my dad to “win,” to make me obedient, were the smallest part of how I was parented and were ultimately unsuccessful.

The last thing I want to do is to make parenting about me and some need I have to appear dominant. What I do want is to give Monkey structure and predictability. He needs to know that if I say I will do something, he can depend on me to do it – whether that’s putting him in time-out or picking him up from the church nursery. He needs to know that bedtime happens at the same time every day. He needs to know that if I tell him not to do something, it’s because it’s dangerous or harmful, not because I’m trying to prove something about myself. And he needs to know that I’m on his side, always, not on the other side of a power struggle in which we are competing for authority.

I love that Monkey is strong-willed. My goal as a parent is not to break his will but to guide it and give it healthy boundaries. I expect him to test those boundaries, and indeed he should, because some of the boundaries I set are probably arbitrary and misguided. Hopefully, if I do things mostly right, he’ll grow up to be a person of integrity and free thinking, challenging the boundaries of unjust authority in the grownup world.



***For those who haven’t read earlier posts, Monkey has motor delays, sensory issues, a feeding disorder and a speech disorder requiring therapy, and possibly does have some problems with inconsistent comprehension. He’s also very bright.


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