The Persistent Child--Turning a Challenge Into a Strength
It is my grown son’s birthday today—the day of his birth and the day of my giving birth for the first time.
As always on his birthday, I think about his growing up years. On the bookcase behind my desk (which happens to be in his old room), I can see photographs of him in his early years. There he is, as a very chunky infant in a blue jumpsuit (having rebounded from a premature birth), in the arms of his 90-year-old great-grandmother. He seems transfixed by the double string of glittering pearls around her neck and her shiny eyeglasses. And there he is as a toddler, looking at the camera quizzically, perhaps because he was uncharacteristically dressed up in an outfit his grandmother, my mother, gave him. And there he is as a young preschooler child in a striped shirt, perched on top of a ladder.
There is a stillness and peace to these photographs that belies my memories of these early years. If I turn the still photographs into moving pictures in my mind, I see him as an infant in that same blue jumpsuit but now he is beet red, back arched and stiff, screaming nonstop with colic. Or I see him as a toddler in the dressed-up outfit from his grandmother, but now he is throwing himself on the floor in a tantrum, because he wants something “NOW!” Or I see him in the striped shirt as a preschooler, but now I am walking out of a restaurant with him because he was so exuberant that he couldn’t sit still and manage the wait for dinner.
Birthdays are a time of gifts and I already have a gift that I will give him at a family party tonight, but I think my real gift to him has been in the way I saw and responded to his insistent and demanding persistence. First, it was in the way my husband and I understood his behavior. We understood that he didn’t feel well when he had colic. We understood that he was born with the kind of temperament where he reacted intensely to new experiences. And finally, we understood that toddlers are often negative—it is a normal part of their development. But most importantly, we saw that his persistence is a great characteristic—he just needed to learn to manage that energy.
As I write this, I don’t want to imply that living with a child who is persistent is easy. Or that I always felt positively when he had a tantrum in a store—I didn’t. But when I got those feelings, I tried to step back, sometimes thinking of myself as a character in a sit-com that others were viewing so I needed to handle things well. Or I called a friend (now called a lifeline) who had a child who was similarly persistent and we could laugh together at some of the outrageous things our kids had done.
I was careful to make sure that I told others—my son’s teachers, other parents, even his grandparents—what a great characteristic persistence is. Most importantly, I told him that I admired his persistence, but that my job was to help him turn it into a characteristic that worked for him, not against him.
The best strategy I used was to help him find ways to manage his own behavior when he wanted something so much that he got out of control. I hit upon this idea when he was a preschooler.
One day, I took him out to lunch. While we were having a good time, I brought up this issue, telling him that I needed to find a way to get him to stop when he started to lose control; that he had to stop when I said stop; there was no choice. So I set the goal, which had to be the role of the parent in this situation. And he knew why—he wanted to control his temper as much as I wanted him to.
I said, “What ideas do you have that will make you stop, when I say stop?” I took out a piece of paper to write down all of his ideas and mine. We discussed and evaluated each of the ideas. He finally came up with a plan—a “very secret phrase”—that only he and I would know. He wanted me to say this secret phrase when I needed him to stop.
I asked him, “How do I know this will work?” We had had some false hopes before. “There has to be some consequence if it doesn’t work,” I said. “And the consequence has to be something you really care about.” So we brainstormed consequences until we arrived at one that he cared about.
Did it work? Not always, but it worked much more often than not. The more he got his own behavior under control, the longer the sunny stretches in our days and the more he could use his fantastic energy and his persistence in positive ways. He has done this throughout his life in ways that I find deeply inspiring.
So Happy Birthday today—to my wonderfully persistent son!
I would love to hear from others who have turned your child’s challenging behavior into a strength and how you did it.
Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute, helped establish the field of work and family life at Bank Street College of Education, where she was on the faculty for twenty-five years. Her more than forty books and reports include Ask The Children, the now-classic The Six Stages of Parenthood, and Mind in the Making, published by HarperStudio in April 2010. She has published more than 100 articles in academic journals, books and magazines.