"You can't let him win."
"Don't give an inch, or he'll take a mile."
"He knows what he's doing."
"Don't try to be his friend. He'll grow up to take advantage of you."
"You have to show him who's boss."
I keep hearing phrases like this. And they're well meant. If you're in a duel of wills with a two-year-old over whether or not it's okay to hit the dog with a spoon, it would be a bad idea to lose. First off, you're in the right -- hitting is bad. And second off, you don't want to teach the child that a certain amount of fighting with you is going to get him somewhere.
But at the same time, the language grates on my ears. My son is not an enemy combatant. It gives me no satisfaction to engage in battles with him and walk off the winner. I want us both to win. Me walking away in triumph with the spoon he was hitting the dog with, while he howls at the injustice of it all, doesn't strike me as a "win." It's a necessary evil that we put up with to get through the day, but it's not a "win."
I've been thinking lately of my three years of teaching. The first year, I was told by most of the other teachers, "The kids will try to take advantage of you. Don't give an inch." So I was as strict as I could possibly be, and they did try to take advantage of me. By the end of the year, several of my classes were near chaos. I wasn't strict enough, of course. But what really disillusioned me was how bad those kids wanted to take me down.
The next year, I had first graders. They're so transparent. They weren't rebellious, and I wasn't afraid to give them a few inches and see where they'd go with that. When they had problems, I assumed it was because they hadn't understood or felt unsure. My most rebellious student, whom I was advised to discipline harshly, I was the gentlest with. I tried to find out what was fueling his rebellion, and when I found it was his frustration and discouragement, I gave him extra help. I let him get away, by the old standards, with murder in order to work on the real problems. The rest of the kids, I occasionally disciplined, but I mostly just took them aside and asked them what the problem was. And they would tell me! They would be thankful for my help, and the original problem would disappear.
The year after that, I was back to ninth graders. The hard age. The rebellious age. I did get lucky. I had a nice bunch of kids. But there were a few that were definitely poised to challenge me. The kind of kid that gets a kick out of going head-to-head with the teacher, of finding what the limits are and staying just within them while still driving the teacher nuts. So I should have gone back to my strict ways. But it just wasn't in me. I was high off of teaching first-graders, and remembered tons of little tricks that had helped them. When a student acted up, I refused to make it into a battle, but would instead ask them what was fueling their behavior. I kept a light-hearted demeanor, warned them that I would punish them if I had to because I had to follow the rules, but that we'd both be happier if we could steer clear of the whole punishment scene. I told them I assumed they wanted to get A's in my class, and that I would do what I could to help them get those A's. I stopped "treating them like adults," and instead used grown-up language while treating them as the rather forgetful, irresponsible, uncertain kids they were.
And it worked. By refusing to fight with my kids, by laughing off things that were supposed to test me, by gently reminding them as many times as it took to get back on track, by motivating them with less homework if we got more done in class, by having a fun day every once in awhile ... I somehow ended up with a peaceful classroom, not a perfectly silent one like I might have wanted, but an involved one. And all of my kids learned a lot. The grades definitely showed I did a better job that year.
Of course, there are tougher bunches of kids than that one. Some will go head-to-head with you no matter what you do. But my assumption that I did not have a tough bunch, my assumption that they all wanted to do well and stay out of trouble (one which I would share with them from time to time: "I know you care about this class, I know you're a really great bunch of kids") ended up being, in many ways, self-fulfilling. And I wonder if my assumption with my first batch of kids was self-fulfilling too. Did they take one look at my lengthy "expectation sheet" and my tall stack of prominently-displayed demerits and say, "We're taking this one down"? I suspect some of them did think exactly that.
I think those three years affected my parenting even more than all the years of nannying and big-sistering that I did before. I find myself reacting in totally different ways to my son than I did to my charges and siblings.
When my little brother was a toddler, he didn't like to be kissed. But I would kiss him anyway. And then he would rub his face vigorously, saying, "I'm wiping it off!" I was hurt, of course, and told him, "No, you're not wiping it off. You're rubbing it in!" He got very upset about that at first, but eventually got used to it. What I ask myself now is, "Would it have killed me to have asked before kissing him? Or to let him rub off kisses he didn't want? Isn't it his face to have kissed or not? Isn't it okay for him to have control over that one thing?" I didn't mean it badly. It just never occurred to me that you could or should let the toddler win anything. It certainly never occurred to me to apologize. I would now, though. I think it's entirely appropriate to apologize to kids when you've accidentally upset them -- it shows them how to do it!
I used to think it was important, every time a toddler crossed you, to make it the hill you were going to die on, and walk off the winner. I can't imagine how exhausting that would be in real life -- when you're not the nanny or the big sister, but the mom. Every disagreement, every bit of sass, has to be a fight and has to end in victory. It would end, at the very least, in a heck of a lot of time-outs. Because no one is more stubborn than a toddler. The only way to win is with overwhelming force.
Now, I let a lot more slide. When I tell Marko that horses neigh, and he insists that they moo, I laugh and make a game of it. When he demands that I don't wear the funny hat that scares him, I leave it off. It hurts nothing to humor him. When he says that he most definitely will NOT sit on the potty, I let him go and try again in five minutes (if he hasn't had an accident by then).
There are some things I won't take. I won't be hit, or let the dog be hit. I won't let him climb things that may be dangerous. I won't let him tear books or break his toys. But I don't make a big deal over these things. I just take away the hitting implement, or walk away, or put the dog outside, or move Marko to another room. That makes him furious. I used to think the appropriate action after a "punishment" of this kind was to ignore the child until he'd stopped crying, because he's got to get the "full force" of how naughty he was. Now, when he's in tears because I wouldn't let him hit the dog, and he's sobbing "Hit the dog, hit the dog," I offer a hug or a new activity to do. I don't insist that he suffer. He is already suffering by not being able to do what he wanted.
But my general rule is to assume that he isn't trying to start a fight with me. He's just trying to do his toddler thing and experiment with stuff. I place the limits, I won't let him go past them, but I'm not offended that he test them either. It's what toddlers do. It isn't personal. And it isn't a fight.
The deepest part of this whole thing is that I try never to think of it in terms of battle or winning or losing. When I think of it that way, I treat it that way, and when I treat it that way, it becomes that way. When I think, "Marko is challenging me, I have to win this one," I am closed to his point of view. I don't think of what will make it better or easier for him. I think of how to win and how to make sure he knows it. And when I have won, I am left with an upset child who is looking for something else he can do that he can win. When I think, "Marko wants something, and he doesn't understand why he can't have it. Let me help him understand and help him not do it anymore," I feel patient. I feel like trying to understand the root of what he's doing. I easily see his motivations (is he tired? bored? hungry?) and can solve his original problem. It's amazing to see his temper tantrum over hitting the dog dissolve as soon as he realizes there are other options, like reading a story, or when he remembers there's something else he really wanted, like a snack. There's no resentment afterwards, out of either of us. We both feel better because we've solved the problem and we can both have something we want.
I know sometimes "battles" are inevitable, especially as a child gets older and more set about what they want. And I know it's important to be the mom and not the buddy or the doormat, and make clear what the limits are. But I still want to get rid of all the warlike language. It doesn't help me be a good mom. When my son challenges me, I want to say to myself not "I have to win!" but, "What does he really need? How can I help him do what I need him to do? How can I show mercy and kindness to him without blurring the limits that he needs me to set for him?"
It's how I would like to be treated, anyway. And my goal these days is to treat my son -- both children -- the way I would like to be treated. I remember being a kid. I remember what it felt like to be powerless and to want to challenge authority just to get rid of that feeling of helplessness. I want to show my kids that I do understand where they're coming from, and that I'm willing to help them get where they need to be. I just hope I can do a good job of that.