ask kathy!

Are you struggling with the same problems with your kid over and over? Having the same fight with your spouse about what to feed your kids? Are you curious to hear if what happens in your home is common or normal, but afraid to share with your friend for fear of their judgement? No problem: Ask Kathy!  Kathy is a parenting coach with many years of experience working with parents. She’s also an expert on children’s development and education.

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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,


Dear Kathy, 

My name is Elizabeth. I am married and I have a 11 year old boy and 9 year old girl. I work full time and come home and feel like I'm at work all over again. My husband is very supportive and engaged but I'm still the one doing most of the organizing, planning, and worrying for the children's health, social life, school obligations, etc.  And then there's the cooking and cleaning and everything else. Overall, I don’t mind it but then the children complain and I get SO angry. I considered stopping everything so they could appreciate what I do but it doesn't feel like a possibility (I have to live here too!) I lecture them constantly about being spoiled and "i'm not the maid!”  I’m sounding like my mother and they don't care. My husband thinks we're spoiling them by not being stricter and punishing them when they don't do their chores. I think he might be right but every time we try to be stricter, we end up giving up after a few weeks. What is your advice? 

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you so much for writing.  You are handling so much, with your full-time job and the full-time parenting/activity-organizer/health-care advocate and full-time home-making.  I want to stop right there for a minute and just acknowledge how much you are trying to get done.  Even with a supportive husband, you are trying to do more than a person can do.  Period.

You might think I’m crazy, but I suggest you start by doing less. I want to invite you to take some time off.  Not to show everybody how much you do so they appreciate it — but to make this point to yourself: you deserve the care and nurturing that you try to lavish on others.  Can you take 1-2 nights a week off? Saturday afternoon? Get a massage, go to a yoga class, have tea with a friend. Doing this — acting like someone who also deserves simple pleasures — will be taking a step toward putting your whole household into more balance.
About responding to the kids when they complain: Of course you sound like your mother.  Our parents’ lines are the lines we learned, the scripts that were drilled into us.  For those of us who like how our parents spoke to us as children, that is a huge blessing — speaking that way will come easy.  For those of us who do not like how our parents spoke to us, we have a lot of work to do.  Please be gentle with yourself.  Learning to speak differently is going to be something like learning a new language.  It’s a huge effort. 

A few words about how that new language might work, if you want to try it out: You are right that when your children complain, they are not looking at the big picture of how much you are doing for them.  They are just looking at the this moment, when they are hungry and dinner isn’t done, or when their favorite shirt isn’t in their drawer. I want invite you not to make their complaint any bigger than it is; their complaints are not comments on your mothering.  They are expressions, in the moment, of a challenge they are having, maybe because they, too, are tired, stressed, or hungry.  You have a chance to 1) honor their underlying feeling — “sounds like you’re really tired and want some support” and 2) to share with them your dilemma, “I’d love to be able to help you with your clothes right now, but I’m not sure how to do that and also get dinner made.”  Then, 3) Invite them into collaboration: “Do you have a sense of how we could work together to get this done?”

My advice, in a nutshell: Acknowledge to yourself how much you’re doing, and give yourself some time.  Come back to the kids, even when they complain, with empathy for the difficulty that they are having, a calm expression of why it’s hard for you to help right now, and an invitation into collaboration.  They might not take up the invitation immediately.  But you will be actively working on creating the culture you want in your house — one where people are gentle, empathic, and work together to solve problems.

Sending lots of love and best wishes!