Defiance Is Not Always

“Alexander, it is time to take a bath now.”

“I don’t want to take a bath now!” He yells and runs to his bed, bumping his head on the edge. He starts to cry.

I wait. Until his head stops hurting from the bump we will not get anywhere.

He calms a bit as the hurting fades and begins to play with the Legos he was holding.

I ask, “Alexander, do you feel like I am not listening to you?” This is how many of our conversations go these days.

He nods. He is ready to listen and to talk now.

“Let’s try again. I am listening,” I say.

He answers “I just want to play with Legos.”

“I understand that you want to play with Legos,” I say. I pause. He looks at me. He waits. “Do you remember when I asked you to take a bath the first time?”

He nods.

“Do you remember you said you wanted to play with Legos first?”

He does.

“I listened. I had Keenie take a bath first. Then Isaac took a shower. Now it is your turn.”

“But I don’t WANT to take a bath,” he answers.

“I understand, but you are not clean. You are stinky and you need a bath,” I say.

He stares at me, his body tense. Defiant posture.

“Is there something bothering you?”

“Isaac said I could take a BIG bubble bath! I don’t want a big bubble bath! I just want one that is small,” he says, the words cascading out of him and his defiance melting. He does not have his walls up anymore. His body has relaxed. He is just small and upset. He has a picture in his head of a bath that does not happen in the way that he wants a bath to happen. He doesn’t want THAT bath.

“Alexander, does Isaac get to tell you what type of bath you will have?”

“No,” he says.

“What type of bath would you like to have?”

“A small bubble bath. With the blue, not the orange,” he says.

“Okay, we are going to make you a small bubble bath,” I say. “With the blue bubbles not the orange bubbles.”

He is on board now.

“If I make a mistake can you say ‘mommy, mommy’ and tell me what I did different so that we can fix it together?”

He nods.

And takes his bath willingly, prepared to communicate if needed.

I could have just resorted to a script, established firm limits, acknowledged that he did not want to take a bath but that he had to. He would have cried. I would have apologized but reaffirmed that a bath was necessary. At the end he would be more upset and he would feel like he had been forced into doing something.

I did not feel that would address the issue that we were facing.

He needed me to slow down. To listen. To try and figure out why it was that he was refusing to do something that he usually enjoys.

Defiance is not always defiance. Often it is a sign that the child has something that they need help communicating.

2 thoughts on “Defiance Is Not Always

  1. Any suggestions for handling similar situations involving apparent toddler stalling or defiance and when communication is not as sophisticated. My 22 month old is a very good communicator but we aren’t here yet and sometimes I just can’t seem to sort it out this way.

    1. Mairie,

      That’s pretty normal toddler behavior in my experience. I tend to take a playful approach and try and get them to take a second look at what it is they are saying “no” to. I actually made a children’s book with the approach that I have taken when my child’s answer is just plain no for the sake of no. You can see the preview here: It’s called “Mac and Cheese, Please”.

      There are other schools of thought that basically says no playing games, no negotiating, set firm boundaries and follow through calmly and acknowledge your child’s upset. I find that this approach makes my children feel steamrollered and they don’t respond well. Many children DO respond well, though.


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