It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Lateral Thinking

Daniel continues to be a challenge. The “one-chance-you’re-out” system of responding to defiance and aggression is working well, but he’s still a lot of work. A lot.

Daniel sits in the front hall, struggling to put on his snow pants.

“If you use two hands, sweetie, it’ll be much easier.”

“I tan do it yike dis.”

“You think so? It looks like you’re having a lot of trouble. If you put one hand here, and the other here, and pull, it will be easier.”

“I tan do it yike dis.”


I turn my attention to the other children. Five minutes later, he’s still struggling, though he’s managed to get one foot to the bottom of that pant leg. Now, however, the elastic on the inner liner is hooked on his heel. He is still only using one hand, and that hand is gripping the pants well above the knee. Destined for failure, this approach.

“Still having trouble?”

“Yes.” Well. That’s a step. At least he admits his master plan is not working for him.

“If you put your hands here and here,” I say cheerfully, indicating the side seams of his pants close to the cuff, “and push with your foot, the pants will POP right on!”

“I tan do it yike dis.”

I shrug. “If you say so.”

Now, there are two things going on here. One is that he wants me to put his snowpants on him. However, he is three and a half, and perfectly capable of putting on his own snowpants. Rosie, a full year younger and less physically coordinated in general, can pretty much get into hers, with only minimal assistance. He’s being deliberately helpless to force me to do it for him. I am willing to help, but I will not do it for him. ‘Helping’, in this case, is coming in the form of pro tips … which he is refusing to heed. So there’s that.

The other part of it, though, is that Daniel hates taking direction of any sort, for any reason. It does not matter to him that my way will save him time and aggravation. What matters is that my way is not his way, and so, even though his way is manifestly NOT WORKING for him, it must be resisted.

What happened, eventually? Well, everyone else was ready to go. Daniel was still struggling with the first leg of his pants.

“Are you still stuck?”


“Did you try using two hands, like I showed you?”


“Okay. Then we are going outside. Here is your coat and your boots. When you try using two hands, I will help you. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

(n.b. We are playing in the driveway, I can see him through the front door, and though Daniel doesn’t realize it, my son is in his room upstairs. (My 24-year-old son, quite responsible enough to be left in charge of one recalcitrant toddler.) Once outside, I will text my son and have him keep a discreet eye on Daniel. But really? It completely suits my purposes to have the boy think he’s been abandoned, just a bit.)

Daniel LOVES playing outside. Suddenly deprived of the satisfaction of defying me, and possibly losing out on outdoor play which may include SHOVELLING, he is galvanized to action.

In approximately 3 minutes he comes onto the porch, dressed in pants, coat, boots and hat, needing only help with zipper and mittens. Crying a bit, but dressed.

There was absolutely no attention given to either the tears or to his appearance. No soothing for the tears, which we a result of his own poor decisions, no cheering for his dressing, which is well within his capabilities. A nod, a quick smile, an “Oh, good, you’re ready to play. I saved you a shovel!”, and he was off.

I presume he used two hands to push his foot through his pants, too. Certainly the way he was not trying to do it was guaranteed to be unsuccessful. However he managed it, he did so expeditiously when there were no other options. So we weathered that incident with minimal fuss, no direct conflict, and Daniel eventually complied with my expectation that he dress his own damned self.

Still. With that sort of resistance to each and every directive, no matter how innocuous, you become aware, as an adult, of how very many directives you issue in a day, and, to be fair, how many of them are unnecessary.

So I need a new approach with Daniel. Not so as to avoid giving direct instructions entirely. Life’s not like that. He needs to learn to accept guidance, instructions, even outright orders, and to do it promptly and graciously.  I expect all the children in my care to follow instructions, take guidance, and obey direct orders. No exceptions.

And really, that suggestion I made about his pants was simply a helpful tip. There was absolutely nothing in it to get his contrary little back up … except that he has a contrary little back. Any other child would take that instruction with cheerful good humour. “Oh, great idea, Mary! Look at my foot popping right out the end of my pants! Who knew it could be so simple??”

I am quite capable of sticking to my guns. I can see to it that Daniel’s defiance doesn’t carry the day. He won’t win the power struggles he so determinedly sets up.

However, we don’t need to have so many of them. We don’t need to, not only because it’s exhausting for me, but because it taints the atmosphere of the daycare for the other children. (It may be exhausting for Daniel, too, but I worry less about that. If the conflicts carry a negative weight for him, well, that’s all to the good.)

Still. The conflicts are tedious, and many of them probably avoidable. I can undoubtedly structure our day to as to reduce what can be a constant stream of directives. I can think of a few ways to achieve this:

1a. Let him struggle. Don’t offer assistance until he asks.
1b. Don’t attempt to coax/encourage: If he asks, I give assistance/offer a suggestion. If he doesn’t accept this, ignore him.

2. Ask, don’t tell. “I know a neat trick for that. Want to know what it is?” He’s allowed to say no, of course. Then I offer him the possibility of asking me later, and in the meantime, let him get on with it without further interaction from me.

3. Vicarious Learning. Show the strategy to the kid beside him. Don’t tell Daniel how to put his feet through his pants, show Rosie or Poppy.

4. Prepared Environment. This taken from Montessori. Have crafts and other activities set up in such a way that instruction is not required. The children can explore with the toys, craft, manipulables, and figure out for themselves how to get the result.

It’s not that I don’t do these things with the other children, but the emphasis is different. If I stand back when I see Poppy or Rosie truggling with some task, it’s because I want them to wrestle with it a bit, to learn persistence and/or to discover, hey, they can do it themselves! With Daniel, there’s more to it than just that, but I think it’ll be effective.

Teaching. Encouraging independence, persistence, autonomy. And making our environment calmer. Ah, yes. I’m all for calm.

December 18, 2013 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, Daniel, individuality, power struggle | , ,


  1. I just CANNOT get over how similar Daniel and Louis are. It’s uncanny. Same thing happens here every single time Louis needs to put on his snowpants. The other three little ones will be COMPLETELY dressed to go out, with no or minimal help from me, and he’ll still be sitting there with one foot rammed in the (wrong) leg.

    I’ve walked out the door several times already this winter with him still sitting in the entryway. He always catches up quickly once he sees he’s getting left behind. But I’ve never actually seen him put on his full winter kit with my own two eyes.

    I always look for the reward. What’s in it for him, to keep the behaviour up? I’ve eliminated social reinforcement: prompt use of the quiet stair, no confrontations, no engaging with the negativity, steering the other kids discreetly away from the quiet stair, those and other things to eliminate attention/reinforcement that way. I’ve raised rewards for compliance: warm hugs, praise, catching him doing it right. So, what? What does he get out of this? Does he actually like the adrenaline rush of potential conflict? Does controlling others’ behaviour mean so much to him that he’ll risk the penalties on the hope of achieving it? Or is he just a reeeeeeally slow learner? I vacillate among the various possibilities, but don’t feel convicted by any.

    Comment by Hannah | December 18, 2013 | Reply

  2. Daniel is a lot like my daughter. She’s 5 and a half, now, and just as contrary and stubborn as she ever was. I’m reading these Daniel posts with great interest, perhaps it’s not too late to turn it around. The Vicarious Learning trick? Genius. Thank goodness you only use your powers for good!

    I have a question, though. What do you do if the child won’t stay on the quiet stair, or what have you? (I send her to her room) How do you not give attention for the behaviour, and also keep them where you send them, and also keep track of the other children, and also, say, make supper? (she always seems to misbehave when I’m in the middle of something that I can’t put down. Not, I’m sure, an accident on her part).

    Yes, it’s a bit of a wonder to me that for all his defiance, Daniel stays put on the stair. Mind you, he finds ways to be a pill while there (curling the mat with his foot, accidentally-on-purpose knocking shoes off the shelf, which he can juuust reach, that sort of thing).

    With the very youngest children, who are just learning about the stair (and haven’t picked it up vicariously by seeing the others take their stints there!) I sit beside them with one hand clamped firmly on their thigh, pressing them down to the stair. I angle my body away so they get no eye contact, and I don’t speak to them. I only do this if the child isn’t sitting on their own, of course. If they learn it well when they’re little, they stick with it when they’re older.

    If Daniel were to refuse to sit, I’d strap him into a booster seat. (If he weren’t so heavy, he could sit in a high chair, but a toddler booster in a dining chair is just as good.) The disadvantage of this is that he can’t release himself, which I prefer to allow, but if I had to use the chair, I’d make it clear that if I could trust him to stay put, he’d get the stair like everyone else.

    If your daughter routinely misbehaves when you’re making dinner, you’re quite right, it’s deliberate. She doesn’t like that you’re focussed on anything but her. One positive approach would be to include her in the dinner prep. Give her something to stir, or a carrot to peel, or vegetables to wash. Five-year-olds loooove being sous-chefs!

    I’ll mull over the rest of your question and come back to it. Maybe in a separate post. We’ll see!

    Comment by Grace Goldragon | December 18, 2013 | Reply

  3. You’re put a lot of thought into this approach. Some carer’s would simply do it all for him, knowing they won’t have to put up with him forever (ie he’s not their child). Do his parents have the same struggles with him?

    Is Daniel the oldest child in your group?

    Could you add in a healty dose of peer pressure, as in “OlderChild” can put on his snow pants with two hands like a big boy but “YoungerChild” needs help because she’s a baby/she’s just little. Do you need help like a baby Daniel, or are you a big boy? Manipulative, sure…but maybe its the little push he needs to conform.

    I’m not sure if Daniel or Poppy is the oldest. They’re close in age. Not that it matters for the purposes of your suggestion, which is a sound one. I’m honestly not sure if it would work with Daniel, but you know what? I’m going to give it a go! He does do some of that with his little sister, Gwynn, but it’s not consistent. He flickers between cheery helpfulness and surly resistance.

    I’ll start when we’re not in conflict. If I started it in the middle of a conflict, he’d see through it in a second, and that would be the end of that as a useful strategy, for evermore! No, I’ll start to make the Big Boy thing a point of pride in lots of small, happy ways, and then see if I can shift it to those conflictual situations. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Comment by Tammy | December 18, 2013 | Reply

    • You’re welcome! And good luck. Let us know how it all works out.

      Comment by Tammy | December 23, 2013 | Reply

  4. I love hearing about your dealings with Daniel, my own Daniel is 11 now but it serves as a great reminder in my approach to him.


    Always good to know what I post resonates with people!

    Comment by blyger | December 18, 2013 | Reply

    • So what can you do with this when trying to do something he is not so motivated by? If he would prefer to stay inside ANYWAY?

      Comment by Rini | December 21, 2013 | Reply

  5. I am also reading your Daniel posts with great interest. This one has lots of good things for me to mull over. My Andrew is a 2 year old version of Daniel, I think. I’ve never believed in “terrible twos” until now. Not that it’s really terrible, but this child has a great need to exert his will. I do many of the things you mentioned above, but I’m going to try to add the others. My biggest problem with letting him struggle is that he struggles so LOUDLY. He fusses and squawks and roars and generally makes a tremendous racket. So if I deal with the fussing, he roars about that. He tries to manipulate me into doing things for him, so we end up with a multi-faceted power struggle (manipulation, control, volume, etc.) and when he sees he can’t win on one front, he’ll shift the focus of the fight to something else, and keep going until neither party is winning. It’s exhausting, and I know that I’m missing things, not to mention that my other kids are needing me at the same time. He’s actually a master at shifting my attention or trying every possible variation of conflict that he can dream up. It makes me wonder about his motives, as well. Does he really get something out of all this? Is it fun for him? He’s really a delightful child the rest of the time and we can have so much fun in other ways.

    Comment by rosie_kate | December 21, 2013 | Reply

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