We’ve been in a rough patch with our delightful daughter, age 2 3/4. Six weeks ago she transitioned to a toddler bed, and ever since things haven’t been going well. She’s a willful child with a serious stubborn streak – now clamoring for independence, wanting to do everything herself. She’s also a toucher, a kinesthetic learner. I find myself telling her not to touch things (the chapstick on the counter, the cheerios on her baby sister’s tray) dozens of times a day – and then repeating myself. I also find that a good portion of my daily energy and effort have gone into little skirmishes and behavior management with her.
Lately a new pattern began emerging: she started to behave in a sneaky way. She took her brother’s dessert donut while he and his dad were in the back yard for a minute, watching a passing plane. She’d draw on his coloring paper when he left the table, feigning igorance (fooling neither me nor him). Visiting friends on Tuesday, she climbed a chair and helped herself to a cookie on the dining room table that I had explicitly told her – moments earlier – was off limits till after lunch. An hour later she was in the bathroom pumping mounds of liquid soap into her hand while everyone else was eating.
I was perplexed. Sneakiness causes appeared to be: 1) she enjoys doing what she knows she’s not supposed to be doing; 2) her tactile nature and strong temptation to touch things; 3) her blossoming independent, “do it myself” streak. If I were “this behavior is a normal part of development” type of mom, I’d shrug it off as just an annoyance to be managed and endured till she grows out of it. But I’m not. Yet correcting the infractions was bearing little fruit, and I was stumped.
(I also don’t think sneakiness is a ‘grow out of it’ type thing. We’ve also known some older kids with a sneaky streak, and our exposure to them convinces me that sneakiness is a hard habit to shake. A sneaky kid is a kid who can’t be trusted, and we don’t want our kids in this category. Trustworthiness is a quality worth fighting for.)
So I prayed hard and pondered. Then yesterday I had an “a-ha!” moment. And let me just say – how amazing is it that the Holy Spirit is the author of the “a-ha!” moment? To be honest I was shocked, despite my prayers, that God so quickly provided me with perspective. When the insight came (with the clarity and peace that accompanies God’s direction), it was wonderful and freeing.
The missing piece of the puzzle was the current driving question in my daughter’s mind, which is this: “What can I get away with?” Not just in mischief-making, but in everything,
See, because my parenting methods are consistent and because she knows obedience is required, my daughter’s developed the habit of looking for little, below-the-radar ways to control the situation. I tell her to go potty, but she convinces me she doesn’t have to go now; she’ll go when we get back from the park. Or if she goes, she determines which potty she’ll use – the potty chair or the toilet. I pull out her clothes, but she say she wants a different shirt. I acquiesce, telling myself that some amount of choice is probably fitting for her at her age, where independence is blossoming. Throughout the day, she looks for every corner of control she can hold down. And she knows that I let yield because the issues are small and I don’t want to deal with the fuss that’s likely to result if I stick fully to my guns. She knows I’m thinking, “She’s obeying me, more or less; let’s just get on with it.”
But every time I give my daughter an inch, let her redirect an encounter in some way, it fuels the rebellion in her. She thinks, “Look how I am getting my way with Mom by making this little change, by wanting this color, by saying yes when I mean no. I’m smart enough to drive this bus without Mom even really realizing.” So she keeps looking for what she can get away with. My unwillingness to fully lay down the law and stick tight to my guns actually serves as a temptation for her to play me. “What can I get away with?” in face-to-face interactions with me begins to spill into a “what can I get away with?” mindset the rest of the time… especially when I’m not looking.
As soon as it fell into place in my mind, I acted. Elizabeth Krueger offers this advice for our situation: “If he has a tendency to resist direct commands, I would really push that issue with him. I’d give him plenty, and be prepared for a possible battle each time. I’d meet any resistance by pushing him into the confrontation he’s asking for, being certain I won. I’d do this as often as he resists any request. Never cajole him into obeying.” And this, pleasant as pie but as firm and consistent as they come, is what I did. Not surprisingly, we’ve had a few massive tantrums and outlasting sessions in the past 24 hours, but I’ve won each decisively. And I’ve been amazed at the instant, transforming results – not just in her but in all of us. The top few:
- She is notably happy, lighter, and more carefree in spirit when I am being firmer with her. Even after losing an outlasting session to me she is all smiles and fun five minutes later.
- I enjoy her more (already!). I don’t have, in the back of my mind, a sense of “what’s she going to try to pull now? And how will I handle it if she does?” I am more relaxed around her and her impulses to sin bother me less because mentally I have already addressed them in advance
- Her brother’s mood is also pleasanter. I think this is because a) he sees my response to her defiance, notes my firmness, and learns from it, and b) she is more pleasant for him to be around too. There was barely a quibble between the two of them all day today. His trust in me seems to have increased as well – almost as if he believes more firmly that I will protect the good and oppose the bad in our home. It really surprised me to see this.
- I felt more harmony and ease in my home than I have felt in weeks, probably months. My renewed firmness and sense of how to handle infractions has been a gift from God throughout this process.
Obedience yields fruit; that I knew but needed to be reminded at a new level. But two new powerful lessons for me in all this. 1) If a sin goes unaddressed, it begins to affect other (and eventually likely all) areas of life. Defiance doesn’t just mean battles with mom and/or tantrums; it can mean developing a dishonest or untrustworthy streak. Problematic behaviors rarely exist in isolation, and I must not treat them as if they are discrete. 2) A family is like an organism. If one child is sinning and it’s not addressed, everyone is affected in some way. It shocked me that addressing my daughter’s defiance produced such wonderful fruit today in my relationship with my son, but really, this makes perfect sense. A family is a bunch of humans continually interacting, and sin damages relationships – the peripheral ones as well as the central ones.
We’ll see what transires with the sneakiness… I feel hopeful about the future. Prayer, closer tomato-staking, and never cajoling into obedience are the paths forward from here for us – and thank God for them.