The first part of this article applies best to young preschoolers (ages two, three, and four); the questions in the second half will be helpful in parenting older children as well.
The scene: a middle-of-nowhere McDonald’s where our family has stopped for a bathroom-and-snack break while traveling.
The surface issue: a bib.
The real issue: Who is in charge—me or my 2-year-old.
Me to my 2-year-old: “You can have some ice cream like the big kids, but you have to wear a bib.”
2-year-old: “NO! No bib!” (Begins crying and tugging at bib.)
Me to myself, glancing around at all the McDonalds customers who are pretending not to stare at us: Okay, I have a decision to make. Do I let her take off the bib, or do I stick to my guns? I could just make her start over and ask calmly and respectfully if she can take off the bib, and then let her take it off, but . . . sigh. This time I need to stick to my guns. First, she’s been fighting me a lot lately. Not good. Second, I don’t want her getting ice cream all over her shirt before we get back in the car. Third, she needs to know that she doesn’t get her way by pitching fits. Fourth, she needs to learn that she doesn’t always get her way, period.
Me to 2-year-old: “Okay, fine. You can take off the bib, but that means no ice cream. If you keep the bib on, you can eat your ice cream.”
2-year-old, loudly: “Me want ICE KWEAM!”
Me: “Okay. Then keep your bib on.”
2-year-old: “No no no no no bib!” Tugs even harder at the bib.
We are definitely getting some looks now. I’m beginning to wonder if we need to take this little confrontation outside.
Me, reaching for her ice cream: “Okay, then no ice cream.”
2-year-old: Throws head back and cries halfheartedly at the ceiling. Not a full-on fit, but she’s thinking about it. I brace myself for the worst. But then she looks at me and I can see surrender in her eyes. “Me want ice kweam.” She stops tugging on the bib.
I hand her the spoon and she digs in, all smiles again. I breathe a sigh of relief. Minor skirmish resolved. Score one for Mommy.
I call this a “minor skirmish,” because in the grand scheme of parenting, it wasn’t a huge deal. This wasn’t a make-or-break moment…not necessarily.
But it was important. It was important because it showed my 2-year-old who is in charge. It taught her that Mommy and Daddy mean what we say. We allowed her to make a choice and gave her a sense of control in her own life, but within the rules we had set for her. It taught her that she can’t get her way by pitching a fit or being stubborn. She can’t wear us down.
In the middle of moments like this, we can feel ridiculous: I’m in a McDonald’s, arguing with a two-year-old over a bib. You start to feel like a two-year-old yourself.
But don’t underestimate the significance of these little confrontations. Small parenting victories like these do matter. Why?
They teach humility and cooperation.
They help young children understand their place in the family.
They set predictable rules and boundaries.
They give young kids a sense of security, because now they understand what you expect from them and how they should respond.
Are there times when we can decide not to turn a little moment into a battle of wills? Of course. Are there times when we can (and should) be flexible for the sake of peace? Definitely. (Keep in mind that more flexibility is often in order with older kids. We need to parent them differently than we would a two- or three- or four-year-old. For more on that concept, read How to Raise Respectful Children and When Your Kid Won’t Stop Whining.)
Here are some of the criteria I use when deciding if it’s time to have a showdown (major or minor) with one of my kids, or if it’s time to pull an Elsa and “let it go”:
Do I have frequent conflict with this child? Do they constantly fight me on every little decision or rule I make? If so, it’s probably time for me to win some decisive battles.
Does this child always insist on getting their way, or is this an unusual situation (maybe they are tired or hungry, or they just really, really hate this particular bib)? If that’s the case, maybe I can make an exception.
Am I giving in just because I want to avoid a confrontation? (Bad idea.)
If I change my rule or give in right now, will I encourage this child to pitch fits or argue with me to get their way in the future? (Bad idea.)
Am I giving in to my child because I am too tired to deal with them? (Bad idea.)
Am I giving this child their way because I’m not confident that I can win a battle of wills with them? Am I afraid I will lose? (This shows that I have some work to do on my own confidence as a parent.)
Am I being unreasonable, unfair, or unkind to my child by insisting on my way? If so, then can I find a graceful compromise that maintains my authority as the parent, but also acknowledges that my original rule might not have been the best plan?
I realize that moments like these are tricky. How is it that a preschooler can get in your head and have you doing all kinds of mental gymnastics, questioning everything you thought you ever knew about parenting? (Or bib-wearing?)
Just remember: A few well-timed victories in skirmishes with young kids will prevent major battles later. It’s much easier to win a battle of wills with an impressionable two- or three-year-old than with a six-year-old who has spent six years thinking that they are the boss. The earlier you establish yourself as the confident but compassionate authority figure in your child’s life, the happier their little life will be.
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but keep my commands in your heart. . . .
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.