Dear Pearls,

I’m pretty desperate. I need HELP with my 21-month-old daughter. My husband and I joke that Rebecca was given to us like Paul’s thorn in the flesh – to stop us becoming smug about the other 4 kids! I have never known a child with a will as strong as this, or an attitude as bad. She has been a handful from the beginning, and has almost got us beat. She is sunny and delightful… as long as everything is going just how she likes it. She is not sick. She is not allergic. She eats & sleeps well. She can communicate.

This is how it goes: 1) I give her a command. 2) She scowls at me and says “Uh Uh!” 3) I give her a swat on the legs. 4) She collapses on the floor and cries angrily. 5) I swat her again & tell her to stop crying. 6) repeat 4 & 5 up to five times. 7) she cries pitifully. 8) I tell her to stand up. 9) she obeys, crying all the time. 10) I repeat the command. 11) she obeys, grizzling unhappily all the time. 12) she is miserable for the next hour… repeat this little scenario 10 – 20 times during the course of an average day.

What am I doing wrong? I HAVE to get control of her, as she is only getting worse with age. We have prayed for her. We have read To Train Up a Child and No Greater Joy (several times since she was born!). We have read everything in the archives on your site. We have watched the videos. We need help. We’re missing something. Give it to me straight!
Thank you,
G & A
South Africa

Michael answers:
Your letter indicates that you are responding correctly. I will assume that to be so. I have often said, “If it is not working, you are either not consistent or there is some other piece of the puzzle that is missing.” My neighbors would say, “Don’t keep saying ‘giddyup’ to a deaf horse.”

Not all children can be trained equally with the same techniques. Many parents will do very well with two or three children, and then, using the same technique, do poorly with the next child, do fine on the following two, and then again struggle with the sixth or seventh child. Families have personalities. The personality and lifestyle of one family will lend itself well to training the tender, sensitive children, or do well with the girls, but do a lousy job of training the boys or the independent-minded girls. Another family will do well with rough boys and high spirited girls but will crush the sensitive child. In some families, the first children born are easily trained in the natural flow of the family. The parents relax, thinking that child training is a breeze, wondering why all those other dummies can’t do so well. And then they have a child whose temperament demands something more than the family naturally provides. They keep doing what worked with the other children, but it doesn’t work with this child.

What we are faced with are the limitations of someone else telling you exactly what to do to raise your children well. Some children will brush off our inconsistencies and hypocrisy, accepting the fact that their parents are not perfect. They roll with the punches, so to speak. They can be hurt or offended, told no, get six spankings in a row, and jump up to give you a big hug, all forgotten. Others carry their feelings around and keep an account of what they consider an offense. They become unreasonable, explosive, and critical; or they retreat into their own world. As they get older, they withdraw. There are subtle indicators emanating from children; they will tell us parents if we are on the right track. We cannot ignore these and just blindly press on as if we were rock crushers.

There are certain things that apply to all child training—yea, to life itself. We must spend most of our relationship tying strings of fellowship and good will with our children. Do things together. Win their admiration. Earn the right to rebuke. Provide a living example of all the things you demand of your child. There must be boundaries well-defined, consequences spelled out, responsibilities delegated, a reasonable time frame and quality of work specified and enforced. You as the lawgiver must be consistent in your enforcement. You must constrain with quiet, unemotional resolve. You must take genuine weakness, emotional or physical, into account, but you cannot show pity for weakness and frailty. In a confrontation, remember that you hold the high ground and maintain the dignity of your office. If a smart child sees a crack in your resolve or fortitude, they will attack that weak point and try to enlarge it into an opening by which to get outside the rule of law.

As to how to deal with this child, do not show frustration or anxiety over the difficulty she is causing. Don’t panic because she is operating at a different level from the other children. If you are consistent and don’t break all ties of fellowship, she will come around in time. The real danger here is that you will communicate rejection. When you have to spank a child more, you must balance it with more good times, more fellowship, more listening, more working together, more of anything that creates a bond. The key statement in your letter is, “She is sunny and delightful as long as everything is going just how she likes it.” You must arrange her daily routine so that she never exercises veto rights over your will for her. If you allow her to dictate her will in little things that don’t matter to you, when something significant comes up, you have already conditioned her to expect to get her way. The most important thing you can do is not spankings; it is to see to it that she never wins a contest of will in things big or small. You have to provide a consistent example of how life is not arranged around her will. Be patient. Be consistent. Train and you won’t have to react.