April 20, 2009

Hard C’s with Strong Wills

Two-and-a-half-year old “Jill” is one of the children for whom I provide daycare services. I’ve cared for her 190 days a year since she was two months old, and I love her. However, it’s sometimes been difficult to like her – or at least her behavior – because (as defined in Dr. Kathy Koch's very helpful CD, Strong-Willed: A Focus On Solutions) Jill is a poster child for the strong-willed.

Jill’s mom saw this trait immediately. And it quickly became apparent to me as well, even when she was a newborn. But Jill’s parents and I are on the same page when it comes to our beliefs about child-rearing in general – and all the more so with the strong-willed. We all believe that a parent’s job (and, by extension and with her parents’ permission, my job as a caregiver) is to train a child toward obedience. Not to break the will, of course. But neither to let it run amuck. Rather, it’s about shaping the will to help prepare a child for the realities of life, long-term.

My daughters are not particularly strong-willed, and Jill is her parents’ first child. So we’ve all been learning on the job. But in that process, we’re finding success with an approach that can be summed up in a simple alliterative phrase: Consequences with Calm Consistency.
When Jill draws a behavioral line in the sand – whether she throws her dinner plate across the room or lashes out to slap someone with whom she’s displeased – she earns consequences. Often that means she gets a time-out tailored to her temperament. And she receives natural consequences as well; for example, when Jill tossed down a treasured baby doll to express her angst at going home one day, dolly slept at my house overnight.

We also do our best to deliver the consequences with calm – which is, of course, sometimes a Herculean task. So we’re not always successful. But we help Jill in two ways when we are. First, we model for her an appropriate response to a stressful situation. And we also demonstrate that her out-of-line behavior will not gain for her the power over us that she seeks.

Finally, we strive to be consistent. That is, our goal is to always address inappropriate behavior with calm consequences, and to give Jill the same consequence every single time for repeated offenses. Thus, every time she wings a plate of food across the room, her meal ends. And any time she attempts to hit, she gets a break in her time-out chair. We don’t excuse any obvious wrong behaviors because doing so would confuse Jill, leading her to believe that it’s sometimes okay and sometimes not.

Jill will always be strong-willed, a trait for which those of us who love her actually rejoice. We know she can use it to protect herself and stand as a leader. But – just as a lump of clay cannot become a beautiful sculpture by itself – Jill’s strong will needs to be molded and shaped to become useful. By doing our best to deliver consequences with calm consistency, we’re already witnessing glimpses of the masterpiece she is.


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