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Q. My daughter is 7 years old. For the last year, she just won't listen to anyone. I just don't understand what is going on. She has always been a perfect child, but now she's acting out, arguing, yelling, and just not listening. If I tell her not to do something, she does it anyway. If I tell her to put her toys away, she won't do it. What is going on, and how can I get through to her?
A. There's something inside the head of most parents that says children should do as they're told. Children, on the other hand, are out to prove they have a mind of their own. While your daughter needs to comply, particularly when it comes to safety, health, and family values issues, she might need opportunities to use more of her own mental skills to make 7-year-old decisions and choices.
Parenting is a constant turning over of power and control from the parent to the child. As children develop, they push for little bits and pieces of power. They need to make choices and decisions appropriate to their age and abilities. If you don't give your daughter opportunities to make decisions (and to live with the results of those decisions), she'll pursue control by being defiant, turning even the most reasonable request into an emotional battle. By allowing her choices and decision-making opportunities about the little issues that are important to her, she'll feel more competent and respected by you. Then when it comes to the big decisions that you still need to make regarding health, safety, and values, she'll be more willing to comply.
You can offer choices about the toy situation, too. Say to your daughter, "Your toys need to be put away. You can decide how to complete this task; you're perfectly capable of doing a good job. Plus, you have a choice. You can choose to put them away by dinnertime, or you can choose to leave them out. If you choose to leave them out, then I will put them away for a week."
Once you've offered the choice, let the situation rest. If she puts the toys away before the evening meal, say "thank you" and that's all. If she doesn't, put the toys in a box in a calm, matter-of-fact way. Lock them in the trunk of your car and bring them out in exactly a week. Doing it this way allows her to make a decision about the toys, respects her ability to do so, and requires her to live with the reasonable consequences of her decision. School-age kids need such challenges.
Also, she may not like her label as "the perfect child." Since the idea of raising a perfect child is a parenting myth anyway, it's time to shed that expectation. Deal realistically with the fact that she's asserting her independence, and understand that in most respects this is a good thing.
I encourage you to read my book, Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles with Your Kids Ages 2-10 (Parenting Press, 2000).