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Who's Right?

Two-year-old Sara wails in her high chair as she arches her back and pushes against the tray. She alternates her body stiffness with kicking her heels against the chair. Beside her on the floor lay small pieces of food, a discarded fork and a plate turned upside down.

Mom picking up the plate for the third time says, “She’s got to learn to leave her plate alone and simply eat her food.” As the plate passes near Sara she stubbornly pushes against it. Mom angrily says, “Stop it! Leave your plate alone and eat.” Dad in his wisdom says, “Take the plate away. If she won’t leave her plate alone take it away. Don’t let her eat until the next meal. That will teach her to not push her food away next time.” “No,” Mom says. “She must learn to eat when we say.”

Who’s right? Parents of two-year-olds play out this scene time and time again. The terrible two’s or first adolescence, as it’s called, brings about a strong willed child who seems to say “no”, just because they can. This stage of life develops as a child discovers she has a will and she is practicing the use of it. She practices even in defiance of loving parents. This can be a time when differences in parenting approaches can generate conflict between mom and dad.

In this instance Mom feels she should require compliance by the child by continuing to return the plate of food. Dad feels taking the food away and having nothing to eat until the next meal will teach Sara to be obedient.

The truth is there is no single right answer here. Each parent’s position has merit. But, the real issue is what parents are going to try in order to work this problem out. If parents focus on who’s right, they make their child’s resistance their problem. Since no one wants to be wrong, the threat to the couple’s relationship for a power struggle is great.

What if these parents are willing instead to focus on the fact that this was their child’s problem and then focus on what they are willing to try? On this basis the dilemma becomes more solvable. First, parents don’t have to personalize the child’s problem against each other. Second, parents may need to employ a variety of strategies to address the strong willed two-year-old, the important issue is what parents agree on and are willing to try. Thirdly, parents must sense when to push ahead with a two-year-old, when to use distraction, and when to remove the child from the situation.

An old Kenny Rogers song said: “Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run”. See the child in their need. It’s important for parents to not make their child’s problem their own.

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