by Kip Zirkel, Ph.D., Family & Children’s Center Supervising Psychologist

One of the first blows to first-time parents comes when they realize their children have an ingrained, unavoidable, genetically programmed, evolutionary-selected process that requires them to choose their own independent personalities. It begins at birth when a baby cries, fusses and demands attention and goes uphill from there.

The real struggles begin between 18 months and three years of age when children become aware they are individuals and start figuring out who they are. One way they do it is by defying parents over seemingly unimportant or trivial matters. It’s a frustrating but necessary process for children to begin establishing their independence and distinguishing their own identity.

What makes it especially difficult is that children do not yet have the skills to do it with any degree of grace. That’s where parents, teachers, grandparents, care givers and other role models come in to help a child learn to develop his individuality without alienating others.

At this point, parents are often prone to taking their children’s defiance personally. It’s important to remember your child really isn’t behaving out of hatred, spite or a desire to be difficult. It’s just a normal, necessary developmental process. Once you step back and view the situation objectively, you’ll be better equipped to determine which battles are worth the effort.

Choosing battles is a matter of common sense. A good rule of thumb is to say ‘yes’ when you can and ‘no’ when you must. When your child resists a request, ask yourself whether it’s something that’s important, something that threatens her safety.

If it’s a cold, wintry day and your child refuses to wear a coat, let her go without it, but take it along in case she changes her mind. Then be sure to park far away from the building. When your child says she’s cold, ask if she would like her coat. Don’t say ‘I told you so.’ That is a sign you’re taking the battle personally and indicates your own need to win.

If your child refuses to get dressed in the morning, let him have his way. Pack his clothes in a gym bag and take him to kindergarten in his pajamas. It won’t take long for teasing to ensue, leading him straight to the gym bag for clothes.

The goal is to increasingly allow natural consequences to take effect rather than imposing artificial consequences. Natural consequences have more impact and prepare your child better for real life choices and outcomes. They allow your child to experiment with making good and bad decisions while under the safety of your watch.

For those occasions when you do find yourself locked in battle, remember parenting is a competitive sport. As with any competitive sport, there are rules and both sides are allowed timeouts. If you aren’t getting anywhere, take some time out to think and brainstorm. Once your child is five or six years old, she can offer solutions as well. You can suggest that she come up with some proposals and get back to you.

The rest of the time, make a point of acknowledging times when your child makes good decisions. You can even throw in a bit of a reward, such as staying up late for a little extra television since he finished his homework

The same tactics work in other relationships, too — be they in the workplace, marriage or friendships. Don’t take disagreements personally, use timeouts when needed, offer choices, stay calm and admit when you don’t have an answer. Master the process with your kids, and you’ll be ready to take on the world.

As published in the January 2008 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.