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Farah Bashir

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A strong-willed child is not a reflection of poor parenting skills

Somewhere between my two-year-old daughter insisting she wear the same Hello Kitty shirt everyday, and me frantically hand-washing it and then drying it with a hair dryer in order to get her to stop screaming uncontrollably, I decided something was wrong. This was more than the average ‘terrible two phase. I had heard of the term ‘strong-willed’ before, and it was only then I read up about it. Each article hit home as I felt like they were describing my child.

Since my first-born turned 18 months, I often doubted my abilities as a mother, always wondering “What am I doing wrong?”

My perspective changed when I realised  she has all the characteristics of a strong-willed child (see here and here ). It wasn’t my incompetent parenting causing her to be so short-fused, but her inherent trait all along.

Although it was not easy to raise a strong-willed child, I have come to appreciate the positive side of her strong character – the unrelenting force when she knows what she wants, her unshakeable opinions, her deep affection when she is content, and her smart little mind which surprises me often.

Raising a strong-willed daughter requires more than the usual parenting tips and tricks – she is beyond that.

After much online research and consulting other mummies with strong-willed children, I learned how to better handle my daughter during those tough toddler days.

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Here I offer some tried and tested pointers that I hope will help you as they did with me: 

Give strong-willed kids options

Strong-willed children love being able to make their own decisions instead of being told what to do.

When it’s shower time, I take out 3 dresses for my daughter to choose from. Once she has happily decided on a dress, I quickly shower her before the excitement of changing into it wears off.

To get her to eat her meals, offer options such as “do you want to eat with your hands or with a spoon?” or “do you want mummy or daddy to feed you?”

To get them to go to bed, offer options such as “which of these books would you like for your bedtime story?”.

Be cautious about offering too many options though, such as “pick out the dress you want” while showing her the entire closet. They are too young to handle that many options and may not be able to decide.

Also, avoid asking questions with Yes or No answers, such as “Do you want to eat?” or “Do you want to shower?” because this will make them think they have options.

Be firm, like a brick wall

Get used to it: Strong-willed children will throw tantrums.

I remember distinctly the time my daughter stood right in front of the TV, her nose almost touching the screen. When we asked her to sit down away from it, she threw the biggest tantrum. It turned into a wresting match with me having to cart her away and she struggling to get back to the TV.

We turned the TV off but she couldn’t handle us saying No for something she felt was totally acceptable. So she continued screaming, rolling on the floor, pushing me and doing everything she could to show how upset she was.

I didn’t budge. I tuned out her screams and pretended to be a brick wall.

She, too, didn’t budge. For an hour. That’s a strong-willed child for you.

After she was all worn out from the screaming and crying, we hugged and she fell asleep.

Guess what? That was the last time we fought about standing too close to the TV. 

Prepare a lot of mini rewards

Oh, this is a lifesaver when you have strong-willed children. You may think it’s bribery, but I prefer to think of it as a reward.

I often scouted craft stores for things my daughter liked – glitter glue, stickers, craft sets, cheap toys and such. I would open up the packaging and split the stuff into money (angpow) packets. For instance, I would put one glitter glue stick in one angpow packet, and I get 5 mini rewards from one packet of glitter glue. Of course, if you have time, you can wrap them up individually in cute wrapping papers.

I would give out these rewards liberally whenever I needed her to shower or go to the toilet or shampoo her hair.

A word of caution – Avoid rewarding them with sweet treats. Sugar and toddlers do not go well together.

For those concerned about the  rewarding culture and its adverse effects, fret not. My girl outgrew this phase at about three-and-a-half years of age, and I no longer needed to reward her for basic daily routines. 

The time out chair

Yelling rarely ruffles strong-willed kids. They are not easily intimidated and rarely buy into threats.

For our toddler, the time out chair worked well. 

Not that she readily sat there quietly when ordered to. I had to be firm and hold her down a couple of times before she got the message. 

This method involves:

  • Preparing a dedicated time out chair in a lonely corner. Don’t use this chair for any other purpose.
  • Giving ample warning before sending them to the time out chair. For instance,  “If you hit your baby sister one more time, you are going to the time out chair!”
  • Follow through, always. If you have to carry them and hold them down firmly onto the chair so they can’t run away then that’s what you need to do. Yes, a strong-willed child will try to squirm their way out.
  • One minute time-out is long enough for a two-year-old.
  • Explain clearly to the child why they are being reprimanded. For instance, “You cannot hit your sister, she can get hurt.”

Be generous with compliments

Whenever my daughter does something that she is expected to do, I would make a BIG deal out of it.  For instance, “You finished your breakfast, I am so proud of you. You did very well!” or “Wow you smell so nice after showering”.

They love knowing they are behaving well, probably because strong-willed children are met with a lot of NOs throughout the day. Positive reinforcement is so refreshing to them. 

Often, during bedtime, I would tell my daughter what she did well throughout the day. I would say things like “I am so proud of you today, you finished your lunch, you showered and changed your pyjamas, you played with your puzzles really well and you were good to your baby sister!”

I found that after we established a routine, she looked forward to hearing what she did well each day. In a way, it also helped me focus on the positive things that she did instead of the difficult tantrums.

It gets better, with practice

Things turned around remarkably for us and became more manageable after we employed these techniques on  our strong-willed toddler. If you are feeling exasperated with your strong-willed child, the good news is that it gets better as they grow. By the time my daughter turned three, I could see her becoming more “rational”.  I could reason  with her, and she could comprehend my logic. Strong-willed children will still have that fire in them, still be highly opinionated, and won’t conform to norms, but the tantrums will slowly disappear as they get older.

My strong-willed daughter is now four-years-old. She still insists that “she likes messy hair” and never lets me tie her hair for school. But she can understand the logic that she needs to be able to see oncoming cars when we cross the road, and that her  hair shouldn’t cover her eyes. So we meet in the middle, she lets me put one small hair clip to make sure her fringe doesn’t block her eyesight.

Strong-willed children may be challenging to raise in their toddler years, but know that everything in parenting is just a phase. With consistent employment of these 5 tips, they should outgrow this “season” soon. I certainly hope they help you get through to the other side, and I’ll meet you there!

Stay at home mums often juggle many responsibilities at a time. I wasn’t always a stay-at-home-mum (SAHM). In the first one and half years after becoming a mother, I worked. Thus I know what it feels like to be a full-time working mum (FTWM). Now, after my 3-year stint as a full time SAHM, I am uncovering what it’s like to be a work-at-home-mum (WAHM) as I recently accepted a contract for a freelance project management job.

In all these various permutations, it was while I was a SAHM  that I received a lot of awkward comments from strangers, family and friends.

It’s easy to strike up a conversation when you have a job (this is not to imply that SAHM’s don’t work). For example, aunties picking up their grandchildren or whom I meet at the pediatrics’s clinic will often start a conversation this way:

Aunty: Where do you work?

Me: In Putrajaya

Aunty: What do you do?

Me: I am doing work for the Government Transformation Programme

Aunty: Oh

At this point, if they have heard about the programme, we will talk about it further. If they give me a blank look, we would then chat about other things like who takes care of the kids when I go to work. They will ask if I have a good maid, and can I recommend the agent, and so on.

A mother making a mundane routine cheerful and engaging
A mother making a mundane routine cheerful and engaging

What do you do all day?

After I stopped working, the conversations steered in another direction. Some common comments thrown at me after I say “I don’t work” are:

“You just stay at home and look after the kids?”

“What do you do all day?”

“Oh dear, what a waste of your education!” (or in Malay, “rugi belajar tinggi-tinggi”).

“Oh, why don’t you start a business, like food delivery or baking?” (And in my head  I’m thinking: I can’t even feed myself most days with these 2 little monsters, when will I have the time to cook and deliver meals??)

The most uninvited response however, is “Do you want to generate extra income?” This is followed by a pitch to join some multi-level-marketing scheme or some other so-called “business” ventures.

Don’t take it to heart

Fortunately, I had ample warning from other SAHM friends and I knew better than to take these to heart. I would just smile and shrug it off and not let it bother me too much. After all, I knew my reasons for choosing this path, and I was not forced into it by anyone.

Although these remarks may seem unkind, I do believe that they were not intended to hurt my feelings. It might be they are genuinely ignorant about what a SAHM does all day. Some of them are not mothers, they are men, or single women, or they are older mothers who have forgotten what it’s like to have small toddlers.

Affinity and recognition

Then there are the neutral or good responses, often from friends who know better. Most of their comments are lighthearted and funny:

“Wow, you are so brave to stay at home with them!”

or “I’m sure working was easier, right?”

There are also the empathetic ones who say:

“Caring for the kids full-time? That in itself is already a full-time job!”

or “I could never do what you do!”

So lucky to have your mum with you
“No one will care for you like I do”

Soothing words to the soul

But in all my 3 years of being a SAHM, there was one particular encounter that I will never forget and which I have held on to dearly in my heart. I would remind myself of it whenever I needed a pick-me-up.

It was a response I received from an older woman whom I met in the vicinity of my condo. She always came to the condo to spend time with her grandchildren. After a few occasions  of bumping into each other in the car park and in the lift, one fine day, she asked me “You don’t work?”

I smiled and said “No”. She turned to glance at my then 1 year old baby whom I was carrying in my arm, and then at my then 3 year old toddler whom I had just picked up from school. And then she said “They are so lucky to have their mum with them everyday!”

My heart just bloomed, and a big wide smile spread across my face. Wouldn’t your heart bloom too, hearing this from a total stranger?

I need to type that again.

THEY ARE SO LUCKY TO HAVE THEIR MUM WITH THEM EVERYDAY!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is the perfect, most positive and uplifting thing that has ever been said to me about staying at home to care for my kids. No awkwardness, no jokes, no judgement. Just purely uplifting and beautiful.

Next time if you find yourself in a conversation with a mother and she says “I don’t work” and you don’t know what to say, you may borrow this line from this fine lady. I’m quite sure she wouldn’t mind.

When Kirsi Salonen moved to Kuala Lumpur from Finland 7 years ago with her husband and two toddlers, she realised there wasn’t much information online about raising kids in KL. Noticing this gap, Kirsi and her two other friends (who have now left Malaysia) later decided to start Happy Go KL – a website for KL parents.

We chat with HappygoKL’s Kirsi, Jilly Resink and Jay Desan to learn more about their journey, aspirations and their experience raising kids in KL.

L-R: Resink, Desan and Salonen from HappygoKL

Happy Go KL’s Journey

The website started as a blog back in 2014, initially targeting expat mums who needed to connect with other mums in KL. Kirsi’s main objectives for Happy Go KL is for it to be a central place where parents can get information about where to take the kids in KL and go for holidays.

It was clear that Happy Go KL was serving that purpose, as that was how Jay Desan stumbled upon the website. A working mum who frequently searched for ideas and reviews from other parents, Desan was reading an article on Happy Go KL when she realised that Salonen was the writer behind it. “Hey I know her!” thought Jay. Their kids went to the same school. Desan then came on-board as a contributor, sharing her experiences to benefit other mums.

They started with a team of 3 writers, and their contributors have come and gone over the years. Now, they have a team of 10 writers, a mix of expat and local mums living in KL.

Advocating Active Lifestyles

The three mums are obviously passionate advocates for the things they write about. Resink, for instance, who does marketing for Happy Go KL, is a true nature-lover. Her family moved to Malaysia 6 years ago from New Zealand, and  she and her two daughters love the outdoors. She praises Malaysia for being blessed with wonderful waterfalls, jungle walks, and beaches.

Another common theme one gets talking to these three women is their love for travel, which is also reflected in Happy Go KL’s travel section. It offers ideas and reviews of family-friendly destinations across the South East Asia region.

“We review both types of travel – be it budget holidays or luxury ones. But we make sure to set the expectations upfront, so readers know what to expect. For example, a review about a ‘glamping’ holiday won’t suit you if you’re looking for ‘strawberries and champagne’. Also, we usually share about the destination rather than the accomodations – things like what activities you can do there, and what you need to bring for your kids,” said Salonen.

Asked what their favourite things to do in KL were, Salonen said: “It changes every so often depending on the kids’ age. Currently, we like playing bowling, and going for jungle walk in FRIM.”

“Chilling waterfalls is great! Recently my kid had a birthday party in the jungle near Ampang, and she claimed it was the best birthday party in her life!” chimed Resink.

Desan said: “My kids play a lot of futsal now, and they like adventurous activities like Skytrex.”

The site reviews places to go for families in Malaysia and South East Asia.

Support Network

The group talked about preferring to support mumpreneurs online, rather than focus on reviews which may be negative. “We don’t want to bash anyone online. There are other websites that cater to that, such as TripAdvisor or other restaurant online-review spaces. For us, if we go somewhere and we don’t like it, we won’t write about it,” said Salonen.

The three mums also shared their experience raising kids away from their family, and how living in Malaysia with kids compared to their home country. Being away from their support group, they had to quickly create a new ‘village’ here, and that is what they hope Happy Go KL would be for other mums – a community to get support.

Desan also said: “We travel quite extensively too, and I realise that KL is a very nice place to raise a family. It’s very affordable here, and there are nice outdoor places to go to.”

“When you grow up here, and your family are all here, you always go to your neighbourhood mall, and you have a lot of family commitments – perhaps you don’t really venture out to other places,” Salonen said. “Some local mums tell me that they didn’t even know about some of the places until it came up on Happy Go KL. We just love to share our appreciation of KL with others.”