Monday, April 28, 2008

Rise of the Valkyrie: Strong-Willed Moms with Strong-Willed Daughters

If I had to predict in 2007 a topic that wouldn't be present on Baby Toolkit in 2008, it would be parenting girls. As a one boy household, it just seemed entirely out of our sphere.

But life is rarely what we expect... so here's one for all you parents with strong-willed girls out there...

My mom and I have a great relationship and with the notable exception of my teen years- always have. At least as far back as I can remember. A friend recently asked me:
Why do you think you and your mom avoided the natural conflict that so many mothers and daughters share?
My friend's daughter is strong-willed (which is a trait that can be an amazing strength in life) as is my friend. Reprimands and punishments for things like intentionally hurting her younger brother seem more like challenges and inspire outright defiance rather than obedience.

When I thought through her question, I came up with no good answer. As long as I can remember, my mom and I have gotten along. I can remember protesting naps (but staying in my room- glowering- through naptime), but that's about the only conflict I recall. So, I thought maybe it was just my mom (she's one of those magical people who does wonderfully with all kids plus she's a great elementary school teacher).

So when I asked her last night if there was anything special and intentional that set us on the right course, she stifled a laugh:
You bet there was.
Any image I imagined of myself as an innately easy child disappeared back into the realm of fantasy.

When I was around one, my older brother (then 2.5) and I decided to run into a busy street. We didn't listen to my mom and were quite resistant to returning to her. We both promptly received spankings upon being drug back to safety. It was my first. My brother was immediately contrite, but I stuck out my chin and my eyes glimmered with a defiance that said, "Ha! I am a big girl now."

Mom saw trouble on the horizon. Some of her friends were well-entrenched in constant conflict with their young daughters. That night she told Dad "Adrienne is strong-willed" and he would have to discipline me as she didn't want us to fall into a pattern of lifelong conflict.

My mom handled crowd control, manners, and the daily basics of toddler management, my dad was the one who dealt with the major issues. Mom knew that I wanted my dad to think me perfect (as many little girls do) and I would take his reprimands more to heart. He was immediately in charge of establishing/enforcing rules, enacting punishments, and showing disapproval. It must have worked because I was a pretty hassle-free kid after that. I tend to follow the rules or argue against them rather than disobey. It's funny because in retrospect I had no awareness of this discipline arrangement between my parents.

My mom's advice is that if a daughter expresses defiance towards her mother that her major discipline then be administered by her father. This works best when daughters and fathers have good, active relationships.

When I talked to my friend this morning (after emailing my mom's response last night), it looked like the same approach was already showing promise in their household.
Her daughter (after being made to stop hurting her brother) said, "Don't I get a time out?"

"Nope, I'm just writing it down so Daddy can talk to you about it tonight."

"Please don't write it down for Daddy. I don't want him to know I did that. Can I kiss [brother] and make it better?"
While I'm sure the kiss and apology were graciously accepted by her astounded brother, I am sure that our strong-willed toddler girl will still have a sit-down with Daddy tonight.

Other granny-related hacks:


Tara said...

Argh. There's something deep in my core that protests this method. Like, "HEY! Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I can't do the discipline!" and all that.

I definitely see the promise in it, but I also wonder if it affects the whole gender role stereotyping thing in our daughters. What do you think?

adrienne said...


I've been think about this post a lot lately... and the LAST thing I want to convey is a sense that women can't discipline.

One of my good friends (a mother of three grown boys) told me that she LOVED having boys because she benefited from the opposite gender relationship. She said that with boys, she knew they'd always butt heads more with their father than her.

I do think opposite gender parents have more sway with young children. I have NO idea why as I tend to think in ways that are gender-neutral.

I know women can discipline fairly and effectively (you should see my mom's orderly and polite classroom).

For me, this recommendation is limited to offspring with tendencies toward defiant behavior with their same-sex parent.

And between you, me, and the Internet, I think my mom held more sway with and inspired less defiance in my brother than my dad did.

Tara said...

Your reply makes total sense. My husband and I have ourselves a very strong-willed one-year-old (who is throwing a tantrum at this very moment), and we already struggle with how to discipline her. The idea of leaving my husband to be primarily responsible for her discipline makes perfect sense, but my feminist self objects whole-heartedly. On the other hand (and perhaps this is the part that makes her truly amazing), your mom obviously recognized the need to suspend her feminist self and do what was best for you in the long run. Clearly, it worked just the way she intended. When the time comes, I hope I show the same selflessness for my daughter.

Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

Holly said...

Wow, that's a fascinating idea. I can see with almost-3 that we will be butting heads here and there. She adores her daddy, and there's a lot of potential there.

I wonder though, how it would change my girls' relationships with their daddy to know that when he got home, he'd be hearing about their misdeeds and meting out judgment? Just thinking about it, I also wonder if I would feel less like an adult, and more like a babysitter, reporting to the parent at the end of the day?

Anyhoo, it's a great thing to think about. I'll definitely be mulling this over. Thank-you!

adrienne said...


I can understand your need for contemplation; this is atypical advice.

I don't consider this practice to be any kind of abdication of power, but rather an endgame strategy.

When a child acts defiantly, (s)he is resisting parental authority with blatant disobedience. We call them power struggles because both parties are wrestling for control. The defiant child wants to be in charge.

By delegating discipline to the alternate parent, the power-struggle parent shows the strength not to trifle with minor skirmishes.

Do we as employees disrespect CEOs for having a Human Resources department manage staff issues? Did we as high school students feel principals were powerless because they had vice-principals of discipline?

By delegating discipline, the deadlocked parent transcends the child's resistance and acknowledges their part of a stronger organization.

It's funny how fast this method can work. By the end of the first week my friend's daughter reported her own behavior to her dad each day. She's been behaving so much better that their talk is more of a how-was-your-day conversation.

Anonymous said...

Got any ideas for a single parent of a strong willed little girl(aged3)?