My son is 5. He is a wonderful, whip-smart little boy but he is very strong willed and stubborn. He’s currently in a terrible phase where he fights me on everything under the freaking sun. From important things, like not chasing a ball out into traffic, to dumb stuff, like putting on his shoes. Every interaction is a battle. Some battles I don’t even fight, some I win, but it’s all horrible and exhausting. Even when I try to chat with him about inconsequential stuff, it turns sour. I’ll ask about a TV show he likes and he’ll correct me on the way I pronounced the main character’s name and tell me I have the plot wrong (even if I’m right).
It doesn’t matter what punishments I cook up or what kind of positive reinforcement plan I use. His need to fight me is unbreakable. I can’t beat it or outsmart it.
I have other children who need my attention. I have a partner and a job. I have a life! But all my energy, resources, patience, and understanding are being siphoned off during interactions with my 5-year-old.
And worst of all, his behavior crowds our relationship so thoroughly that there is no more room for anything else. I can’t remember the last time we cuddled, read a book, or played because I’m so busy struggling and punishing and bargaining.
It makes me so sad. I feel like he thinks I don’t even like him. But I love him more than anything.
What do I do, Evie? Why is he so against me? I miss him every day.
Waving the White Flag
Dear Waving the White Flag,
I’m going to take your word for it when you say you’ve tried all the various reward and punishment systems that are out there. You’ve tried everything. You’ve tried doing nothing. I hear you. So I’m not going to give you advice about how to change your son’s behavior. If I knew how to do that, I’d be in a different business. What I’m going to try to help you change is your perspective so that it doesn’t feel so earth-shatteringly awful when he acts like a little jerk.
The thing that strikes me about your letter is your description of your son as being “against [you].” You say that his “need to fight [you] is unbreakable.” It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Like it’s us versus our kids, locked in this battle for superiority. Like they know exactly what they’re doing and they’re doing it on purpose just to make us mad. That feeling is real and it sucks. It’s times like that that I have to work really hard to remind myself that I am the refrigerator.
Let me explain.
All children are sociopaths. Is that too harsh? I don’t want to lose you. I’ll scale that back a bit. Really small children lack the ability to empathize, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy isn’t something we’re born with; it’s something we develop, like the ability to roll over, and something we learn, like the ability to speak English. It is both of these things in equal measure. It is complicated. It takes time. It’s not a switch that simply flips on one day. It comes and goes.
Do a quick mental survey of all your friends, your relatives, your colleagues. I’m sure you know some fully-grown adults who haven’t mastered the art of empathy yet. It’s hard! Especially when we’re tired or hungry or frustrated or all those things at once and we’re not even tall enough to reach our own damn juice boxes.
Think back. You remember it, right? That feeling you had as a kid that the whole wide world revolved around you? Remember what a revelation it was when you first stumbled upon old photographs of your parents? They were young once, like you. You sort of knew this, but it was surprising, somehow, to hold the proof in your hands. They’re your parents, by definition! Their very role in life is defined by your existence…right? How could they have ever had lives that didn’t include you?
I’m coming back to that refrigerator thing, I promise.
As I said, it’s a question of empathy. When you’re at the end of your rope because you feel like your kid is fighting you so damn hard and it feels so pointed and personal and directed right at you, try to use your very developed, very grown-up powers of empathy to remember what it feels like to have almost no empathy at all.
When your son’s using all of his emotional energy just to process his own complicated and overwhelming feelings, he simply doesn’t have any left over to imagine how you’re feeling. In these moments, you are basically the refrigerator. You’re just this thing in his life. This big thing. This thing that performs a service for him, but that he doesn’t really think too much about in the in-between times, when it’s just sort of sitting in the kitchen, quietly doing it’s job. This thing that he occasionally has to interact with in order to get what he wants, or he might never even think about it at all.
How much time do you spend thinking about how your refrigerator is feeling? How often do you wonder whether your refrigerator had a good day? Do you ever call home from work to check in with your refrigerator?
Look, I’m not trying to say that it’s not a total bummer that your son is being an asshole. All I’m trying to say is that you should try not to take it too personally. He’s not specifically setting out to hurt you; he’s just not really thinking about you at all. This doesn’t make him a monster; it makes him a little kid.
Don’t fret. He’ll grow into it. As I said before, empathy takes time and practice. Keep trying. Keep identifying his feelings, and your own. Keep praising him when he shows compassion and understanding. Keep disciplining him when it feels right to do so. And keep looking for those quiet, peaceful moments when the two of you are really connecting, when you’re more than just the refrigerator. They will power you when you’re in the empathy desert, waiting patiently for the rain.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch