Zwambag: Fight Club for four year olds

The Motherload

Hello attitude! We’ve hit the fours hard over the last few months, with all the attitude that comes with them whenever we ask our daughter to do something she doesn’t want to do. Like, going to bed. Or eating her dinner. Or not sitting on her brother’s head.

A big part of this age is that the desire for independence becomes part of their essential make-up. It goes from a desire to a true need as they get ready to go out in to the world without mom or dad each day for school. They realize that they’re capable of more than having their meat cut up for them and needing you to hover under them while they climb the crazy curvy ladder at the playground.

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They can do it by themselves, and they’re willing to fight for that right.

There are a lot of great things about this age. She’s helping around the house by making her bed, getting herself dressed, even making her own lunch. She can entertain herself and works a lot harder to push through challenges before asking for help. She goes to preschool for a few hours and loves it, while I love the chance to nap.

But, then, there are also the inherent challenges that come with blossoming independence. Namely that pretty much everything has become a fight; a tightrope for me to walk determining whether what’s she’s fighting for is safe/matters/is a good teaching moment or if it’s something that I simply have to stand my ground on.

I’ve discovered that there is a lot less that I have to stand my ground on than I expected. Bed time? Sure. Not using physical violence to express her displeasure towards her brother? That one stands. Holding my hand in a parking lot? Yes, but with the caveat that I try to give her a little more freedom and let her lead the way and look for vehicles to prepare her for the day when she won’t have to hold my hand.

But gone are the days of choosing her clothes, getting her to eat what she really doesn’t want to or even getting her to leave the house on a day she wants to stay home. I find myself using the phrase “Your body, your choice” a lot these days, or telling her that she gets to decides her limits, or simply taking a deep breath and saying “okay” as she tests her limits a bit.

Best of all, I’m teaching her to argue.

One day as she had an absolute tantrum over something that seemed very minor to me (in this case, she wanted to finish building her tower as I was trying to usher her out the door for preschool), I realized that we were smack in the middle of a teaching moment. There she was, absolutely set in her opinion of what we should be doing instead and just completely unable to express herself in any other way but to lay on the ground and scream. This was important to HER. In that moment, I realized it wasn’t time to give in, but rather time to show her how to express herself effectively.

So I sat down on the floor beside her.

“What is it that you want right now, girly?”

Through tears, she managed to get out that she wanted to finish building her tower. I knew letting her do this would make us late, but decided to push forward.

“What is it that mommy wants right now?”

She tells me that I want to take her to preschool. Good. She’s got a grip on the situation, I realize. So I do something I’ve never done before. I ask her to give me three reasons why we should stay home long enough to finish her tower; I ask her why this is important to her and give her the chance to actually tell me. She didn’t really know what to do with it, but she did get three reasons out. And then I flipped it and asked her to listen to mommy’s reasons as to why I thought we should go. She listened more intently that I thought she would. And in the end, I expressed that I thought my daughter’s reasons were very important and that I’d let her finish her tower, even if it made us late. So she did, and then went without complaint.

Now we run through this every time we disagree. Figure out what we are disagreeing about (and articulate it), give our arguments (to teach her not only how to express her own needs, but also to have empathy for others) and then decide together how to proceed.

It’s been more effective than I ever dreamt it would be. She’s feeling more empowered (and less tantrumy) and the whole empathy thing is really starting to “click.”

This is an essential life skill. One that every child should be learning. To embrace their emotions and stand up for what they want respectfully. To be able to listen to and accept other viewpoints as valid and valued. To not instinctively shy away from an uncomfortable conversation.

Might she best me some days? Absolutely. But, someday she won’t be arguing with me over reading an extra bed time story. Someday, she will be debating her salary with an employer or her own needs in a loving relationship, and I want her to have a real voice—not just a loud one. I want her to have the tools that she seeks not just to win, but to find the right solution.

That’s how you really win a fight. 


Brianne Zwambag is a full-time boo-boo healer, snack artist, janitor, referee, master storyteller and child stylist in Fort St. John, who sometimes gets a chance to sit down and write about life, mommyhood and the issues that surround it.

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