She Won't Wear Her Coat (How Do I Get My Kid To Cooperate?)

Hi Kathy, my name is Sophie. I'm the mom of an almost two year old girl, Marie, who is VERY willful. I feel like I’m always trying to get her to do something! Every day we’re locked in battle. I’ve tried a lot of strategies but nothing seems to really work. As an example, this past winter, she would refuse to put her coat on before leaving the house. We live Upstate NY and it’s VERY cold.  I would end up physically making her. I tried other strategies but nothing worked and I got to a point where I would just do it without even trying to negotiate with her. I don't want her to get sick but these moments leave me feeling really drained and upset. How do I make my kid wear her jacket without having to physically make her?


Dear Sophie,

It is so hard when you ask something of your child that seems completely reasonable and so obviously for their own good, and yet they resist. It’s maybe hardest when you are trying to get out the door, and you want to get where you’re going and do the important things that you are heading toward. It’s so frustrating. I hear that you really hate using physical force to put on Marie’s coat, but it doesn’t seem like there is any other option, especially with Sophie, who sounds like she is a young person with some pretty strong opinions and preferences.

There are so many moments like this in parenting, whether it is wanting our children to eat healthy food, wear shoes, go to bed at a certain time, etc., etc. There are more and more of these situations, in fact, as children grow.  I’m really excited that you are looking at this question now, Sophie, while Marie is just a toddler. As I see it, the broader question is: What do we do when our child really objects to something we want them to do?  And even: As a parent, what are the most important things I want to teach my child?

There are definitely times when physical force is necessary. Take the classic case of using force to pull a child out from traffic — it is of course our responsibility to keep our kids safe, and physical force is necessary in these cases. Period.

But I agree with your impulse to question whether physical force is necessary in this case.  I’d like to help you reframe some of what is going on. You say that Marie is very willful. Marie sounds to me like a person who knows what she likes and doesn’t like; maybe particularly in the realm of physical experience.  Marie knows what she wants with her own body, and she’s not afraid to let you know. To this, I say, and I know it’s easy for me, because I don’t live with her — Bravo! Attunement with one’s own body is a vital component of being able to make safe and wise decisions for oneself.  

In other words, by refusing to put on her jacket, Marie is telling you that her body doesn’t want her jacket right now. In your position, I would be curious about what would happen if you honored her choice and let her know that you value that she is attuned with her body, maybe saying something like, “It seems like the coat isn’t comfortable for you right now, is that right?”  “If you get cold and would like to put it on, let me know, okay?” With an older, fully verbal child, I’d try to understand — not to negotiate — but to understand where Marie’s preference is coming from.

In this case, though, I am suggesting that you at least try out running the risk of letting her get colder than might be ideal in your mind.  She might get cold.  But you would be affirming for her that she is the boss of her own body — a crucial life-lesson. And you’re teaching her that you trust her inner compass — that she will tune in to her body and know when she should put on a jacket.  This “inner compass” idea is another crucial lesson, about which I’ll have more to say in future columns.

In the meantime, here’s to more ease and peace between you and your beautiful girl who knows what she wants.

In companionship,

Kathy

ana joanes