Photo by: Patrick Breitenbach

The Persistent Child--Turning a Challenge Into a Strength

by Ellen Galinsky
Photo by: Patrick Breitenbach

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.

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Thank you for this. As a mom of a similarly persistent child, I commend you. It's not easy, and more times than not you want to tear your hair out. But your son is lucky to have a patient mom like you that understands he didn't fit inside of the cookie cutter mold of a child, and parents him the way he needs to be parented - with love and acceptance.

The key to the persistency and other difficult behaviors in most kids is due tothe parents allowing the behaviro to exist.
this author recognizes and admitted that she and her husband made excuses for his behavior. What ever behaviors we accept from ourn infants, toddler andpreschoolers doo not magically disappear. They grow withthe children. So the cute or acceptable negative behavior is no longer cute and acceptable when they are 10 years old...

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I don't think it's as simple as Polly is saying. I believe it's a combination of both: the child's personality and how you respond to it. I have a persistant child and it is not because i allow it. Some kids just are more persistant/stubborn/strong-willed than others. If what she is saying is true, then how come some parents have children with different temperments?? I wish it were that simple then my child would a very wellbehaved non-persistent child.

I LOVE the word "persistent" -- so positive, versus the negative "willfull." My son was born persistent (my daughter a born negotiator), and your article has given me a great gift as well -- there are always positive and negative sides to all character strengths, we parents just have to find ways to shine the right side of our child's coin!

Thanks Julie. You know from having a son who was born persistent, that as parent we have to work hard so that others don't stereotype our children and instead work with us to ensure that we all "shine the right side of our child's coin" at that same time as we help them use this characteristic in positive ways.

I have four sons and I agree that children are all so different. My husband even told me that I had to disciipline our third son differently than I did the other three because of his inquisitive nature. But even with that certain behaviors were not accepted. I do strongly believe that early setting of boundaries and expectations go a long way. If that is all the children know then there is no need for parents to change how things are done. Children follow our lead...

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The more we honor that each child, and each parent is different and that they come with a different sets of realities, issues, strengths, challenges etc. the closer we can come to a dynamic working relationship that honors the individuals and the relationship. Communication is the key; when we communicate, name, give voice to an issue we honor the people and the challenge...

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thank you so much for the intelligent, heartfelt, common sense advice. i am not a mother yet, but read these blogs to prep myself for the wild ride of motherhood. i often read these entries and have tears in my eyes, as i do now. thank you thank you thank you.....
happy birthday persistent son of ellen!

That was a great way to put a positive on a negative. I have an adhd child and I have learned that giving goals and looking for his positives helps everyone around him.

I love the term "persistent". My daughter is also persistent, and I felt alone for a long time, because other people's kids were not like her. Its been a long road, but I definitely see the positive side of things now, and it isn't always easy, but we keep trudging through. Thanks for a great story...lets me know I'm not alone with my darling "persistent" daughter!

I do like the term "persistent" child versus the "willful" child. It is more hopeful and positive! My nephew's personality was made known to us early on and he was a challenge to deal with when he began grade school. His parents (my sister) were much more patient than the many au pairs they hired to care for him when they were working. They finally realized that they needed to host older, mature au pair who had multiple siblings, including lots of younger brothers...

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I just had to comment, when I read that your baby "arched his back" and had colic. I too had a baby that arched - we used to call her "Archie" and sometimes we could barely hold onto her because of the arching. Later, I found out that is a symptom of major acid reflux. Perhaps your baby had colic - but in my humble opinion he definitely had acid reflux (my oldest "Archie" had both, my youngest only the acid reflux)...

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Lucky is the persistent child who is born into a family where temperament is understood and taken into account. Where challenging dimensions of temperament are seen for what they are, rather than as "willful disobedience" or a behavioral problem to be nipped in the bud or eradicated...

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Thank you for your article. I am currently the mother of a "persistent" 3 1/2 year old son. Many of my days I am brought to tears by his strong personality. He has been in preschool for one week and I have already received numerous calls from his teacher. I have read every book, have time outs, rewards and a star chart for good behavior and consequences for bad behavior. I know that his personality and strong will is not a "bad" characteristic, but I don't know how to foster this energy...

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I was very persistent as a child and bordlerlined being a severe pain in the rear at some times. But now this challenging, bored with everything child is doing some great works! My parents loved me and was always there for me guiding me with love. There were no textbook guidelines just alot of love and prayer and guidance. I'm 46 and a mother of 4, 3 of whom have my persistence but hopefully they too will look beyond the "norm"...

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