When Taking a Backwards Step is a Positive Thing

20160216_130424About a year ago, my four year old son decided that he was ready to start brushing his own teeth. I was hesitant. Dental hygiene is obviously very important, and I had read some great Steiner Waldorf based articles which stated that tooth brushing is a skill very similar to writing. When a child can write (typically a skill acquired around seven years old in Waldorf education) they can also manage to brush their teeth competently.

However, despite my reservations I had no desire to tell my son what he could and could not do with his own body. And so, we started a gradual process of handing over the task of tooth brushing with my role becoming less and less until after around a month, he was doing it all by himself – and very well too.

He was excited with his new found skill and taking on the responsibility of his own personal care. Yet, as the months passed by, this excitement waned. I began to notice that he was wandering around chewing his toothbrush, but not actually brushing his teeth. I felt frustrated. I knew he could do it well, but he just wasn’t interested.

I went back to reminding him how to brush every tooth. I tried brushing my teeth alongside him. But it didn’t work.

He lost interest to the extent that he didn’t want to clean his teeth at all, and mornings and evenings became a time of stress and nagging. He would whine, “Can you help me? Can you do them for me tonight?” and I would reply, “No, you are perfectly capable, please go and brush your teeth. I know you can do it darling.”

He wouldn’t, and I would get more and more frustrated at having to ask again and again.

Every single time became a battle of wills.

Until one day, I realised that he was reaching out to me and I was pushing him away. He had always enjoyed our bedtime routine, and me or Daddy brushing his teeth had been a time for eye contact, bonding, silliness and smiles. We had all been through a tough and unsettling year, and though he may have felt ready for this step initially, now he was crying out for the familiarity and security of being cared for.

So that night, we went up to get ready for bed. I could already feel him becoming agitated, ready for our nightly tooth brushing war. But instead, I asked him to go for a wee and wash his hands, and I told him that I would be doing his teeth. His whole body slumped with relief as he broke into a wide smile.

“Just for tonight?” he asked.

“For as long as you need,” I replied.

And just like that, our bedtime battles were over and we were connected again. Bedtime became smooth and argument free, and we no longer dreaded the nightly ritual.

If you’re thinking that this is nothing more than permissive parenting, that he won and I gave in, I can see why, but you are wrong.

You see, traditional parenting teaches us to push through. To break the will of our children and to NEVER EVER go backwards. If we know they can do something, we should insist that they do, even if it means sitting with a screaming child for two hours while you wait for them to put their shoes on. Even if it means missing a fun day out because they wouldn’t pick up their toys.

Parenting this way is miserable for the entire family. It breeds anger, resentment and stress. It may get results eventually, although often it won’t, but it won’t give a child any desire to be cooperative. If anything it encourages defiance and creates the impression that parents and children are always in opposition, setting the child up to habitually say no to any request you make, to prepare themselves for conflict at every interaction.

But do you know what does breed cooperation and creates responsible, thoughtful and self reliant children in the long term?




If you find yourself in a battle of wills over ANY parenting issue, I encourage you to look closely at what is happening, and rather than trying to figure out, “How can I get them to do as I say,” ask yourself, “How can I regain a connection with my child and deal with this with cooperation, love and respect for them?”

It may mean taking a step backwards. Don’t worry, it is temporary. In the end, your child will be competent, capable and most importantly, emotionally secure and intact. There will come a day when they are ready for the next step. Don’t worry if it’s not today.


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6 thoughts on “When Taking a Backwards Step is a Positive Thing”

  1. This made me think back to my experiences as a child – being told I was old enough to do something by myself, when what I really wanted was the companionship of my parents. I distinctly remember not understanding why being older meant you don’t get to do things together and have a giggle.

    And now I am realising as a mother that this is just one of the many parenting lessons I can choose to ignore. You are modelling a generosity of time and flexibility.

    1. Exactly. Sometimes – in fact most of the time – we need to look closer at what the child is trying to tell us through their behaviour. It’s not about the teeth. It was never about the teeth. It’s about his need to feel cared for and loved, to remove the pressure and to have fun.

  2. Great to remember!! Any thoughts on if the battle of wills is a toddler being disrespectful? My 2 1/2 year old knows he’s “being fresh”, he says it now, after loudly shouting “no!” at his daddy and grandparents no matter what they say to him, refusing to answer their questions, etc. It’s exhausting to keep telling him we don’t talk like that to our family. He responds “yeah, being fresh! Hit mommy!”. He doesn’t actually hit me, it’s like he’s saying all the things he knows he’s not supposed to do! It’s been weeks of this. I’m at a loss.. My mother of course said she would slap our mouths if we talked like that which disgusts me but I do feel embarrassed my boy treats her that way and I can’t remedy it. Any ideas would be appreciated!

  3. Great article,so wise…the same thing happened to me and my little girl and “going to the bathroom” It took me a while to realise that she just needed me, I went through the same process,we live and learn I guess!

    1. Parenting is a constant learning process isn’t it! Just when we think we’re doing wonderfully, a developmental leap, an upset or something completely unpredictable can turn things upside down and make us realise that we need to figure out a new approach. I think it’s a good thing. It keeps us coming back to connecting with our child and looking for the real needs behind their behaviour.

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