Question: It’s winter and it’s freezing out there. But my seven-year-old refuses to wear his snow pants. I’ve tried empathy. I’ve tried sweet-talking him. Nothing seems to work. Can you help?
Answer: You’re not going to like my short answer. Don’t make him wear the snow pants. What? Keep reading.
I’m betting you have a strong-willed child. I think we can agree that his determination and drive will serve him well as an adult, but it certainly is challenging to raise a strong-willed child. (I’m speaking from experience.)
It sounds like you two have gotten into a power struggle over this. Is this the hill you want to die on?
I have a client who told me about some battles they were having with their strong-willed three-year-old. One epic hour-long battle was whether the child needed to wear socks with his boots to go outside. Another was whether he had to wear a helmet on a pony ride. It’s really fine if a child doesn’t wear socks and their feet are little uncomfortable. It’s not fine if a child gets a head injury. They can go outside without socks, but they can’t go on the pony without a helmet. I urged my client to use this question when setting limits: “Is it a socks issue or a helmet on the pony ride issue?” We need to choose our battles.
The most important thing to understand about a strong-willed child is that they are experiential learners. That means your son may need to experience cold and wet legs in order to understand why snow pants are important. Will he be uncomfortable without snow pants? Probably. Will this have lasting effects? Probably not.
The experience of being cold and wet will help him make a different choice tomorrow, as long as you don’t make him feel like he is losing if his choice is to wear the snow pants. Don’t make it into a power struggle. As he’s getting ready to go out, ask him if he wants to wear snow pants. Respond with a shrug, “No? Okay. Let’s put them in your bag in case you change your mind." If you respond with “Fine! You are going to be cold and sorry you didn’t wear them,” he will never admit that he wants them. He can’t feel like he is losing if he decides he’d rather not be cold and wet.
We also need to remember that strong-willed kids really don’t like feeling bossed around. They have a strong sense of personal integrity and autonomy. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t in charge or that your strong-willed child doesn’t need limits. You are and they do. Within this framework, the more you allow your son to make important age-appropriate decisions about his life, the more he recognizes that you care about his opinion and that you have his best interests in mind. When a strong-willed child learns through experience that you are not being arbitrary or power tripping, and you ask them to do something they don’t want to do, they will often agree because they trust you and trust that you are not just bossing them around. Giving your son choices and autonomy whenever you can, makes it easier for him to accept your authority when you can’t.
If you really can’t let it go completely, make a compromise. This is a great opportunity to use collaborative problem solving. “Son, we have a problem. I really want you to wear snow pants. You really don’t want to. What can we do to solve this problem?” Get him to come up with a solution. When one of my children was in middle school (that time of life when they are famously impervious to cold), he and my husband struck a deal in a similar manner. Hats would be worn when the temperature dropped below a certain degree. This technique effectively addresses the two potential strong-willed-child pitfalls I mentioned above: You aren’t in a power struggle and you aren’t bossing him around.
Some might advise you to crack down with consequences. You could try to break his will, but the damage to your relationship will make things harder in the long run. You need to learn how to work with him instead. This personality temperament, while challenging, will serve him well in life. Hang in there.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.
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