"She wants what she wants when she wants it!"
"Sarah's needs are the only things that matter to her at any given moment," says the mother of a 5-year-old, "whether it's buying some ice cream or not turning off the TV. She never knows when to stop arguing. Sometimes I think she's just selfish!"
The parents of kids who are relentlessly demanding often seek my advice. But their feelings confuse them. On the one hand, they like having a strong and determined child. On the other hand, they're living through ten standoffs a day, during which their child will do or say anything -- even "I hate you, you're stupid" -- to get her way. Then they begin to feel, as Sarah's parents do, that their youngster is manipulative or even ruthless.
What to Understand: Most tenacious children are hardwired to be the way they are. Sarah's father thought back over her history and realized that "ever since this girl came out of the womb, she's set her sights on what she wants." She had a voracious appetite and nursed ferociously, he recalls. If a toy she liked was put away, no amount of cajoling could distract her from the object of her desire.
The Plus Side: Although this is hard to keep in mind, especially when you're in the middle of yet one more power struggle, your child's persistence will serve her well over time. Whatever she chooses to do -- study piano, excel at ice skating, learn her spelling words -- she'll stick with it. She's also more likely to be confident in general and less likely to be pushed around at school.
What to Do: Life will certainly be more pleasant with fewer power struggles, so choose your battles. If your willful child hates taking a bath and every evening brings a major head-to-head, ask yourself if the daily bath really matters. You may decide it doesn't. If you bathe her every other day, you'll reduce the fights by 50 percent, and your child will not be noticeably less well-off or less clean.
Sarah's mother actually kept a written log of a week's worth of fights between her and her daughter and then considered what was important to her and what wasn't: "It bothers me when she calls people names. And I will not tolerate any hitting or pushing of her sister." But a number of other battles, such as what Sarah would wear on a given day or have for breakfast, she let go. "There's so much less fuss now over getting dressed and out in the morning," she says. "It's a miracle!" Offering limited choices is a strategy that works with confrontational kids. "I give her two or three options," says Sarah's mother. "I'll say, 'Do you want to brush your teeth now or later?' Or 'Shall we read a story before you get into your pajamas?' She likes to call the shots, and this is a no-hassle way to let her do that."
When you opt to disengage from some of the standoffs, your child's overall level of stubbornness goes down. This may very well move her a bit along the continuum from very stubborn to merely determined.