A famous Frank Sinatra song tells a story of the narrator’s success in life achieved by doing it “my way.” This is probably true for many famous or successful people who are known for their creativity, innovation, or reaching the top of their fields in a particular area of work. We may admire such people, but on the other hand some may be criticized for being “my way or the highway.” The implication is that of ruthlessness, or a lack of tolerance for others’ ideas or ways of doing things.
Yet the feeling that “I want it my way” or “my way is the right way” is often a source of conflict in relationships generally, and particularly between parents or between parents and children. A characteristic of young children is to want things their way, and in many instances the job of parents is to teach children better ways to accomplish what they are trying to do. Parents also have to help children know when their “way” interferes with someone else’s “way”.
These tasks can be challenging for parents. During the early years, when children are just developing new skills and also wanting to assert their autonomy, a familiar cry is, “Do it myself”. A child wants to put his shirt on himself even if it goes on backwards. She wants to pour her own juice even when the pitcher is too hard to handle and the juice will probably spill. Parents often have to find the balance between respecting a child’s developing skills and wish for autonomy, with averting disaster in some situations.
We also have to become aware when we ourselves as parents, are overly invested in our own way of doing things or what may seem to us to be the “right” way. Children are often very creative and can arrive at some interesting results when allowed the freedom to do things their own way. For example, they can create original inventions using games or toys in ways that were not necessarily intended. One can see this particularly in children’s art work, where an adult may want them to color within the lines, or use a brush and paints in a prescribed way. So there are times when we need to step back and give children the freedom to do it their way.
More challenging are those situations in which a child’s way interferes with someone else’s way. This happens often when children are beginning to play with each other or even when they are playing alongside each other. A child playing with a truck may move it into a space where another child is building something. In effect, the issue is sharing space even when not sharing a toy.
When children begin to play specific games, one child may be more ready to follow the rules than the other, or the wish of the other to win may lead to sidestepping the rules. In such situations there may be a cry of outrage that the other child is not playing the game the right way. This often happens when children are engaged in creative play and may differ on how the story they are playing should unfold. The complaint may arise that one child is refusing to be the father, or child, or teacher, or whatever role one wants to assign to the other in the play’s story.
This may all seem part of children learning to share or compromise, but perhaps more fundamental is the ability to understand and accept that others have their own ideas, which are just as valid to them as ours are to ourselves. This is as true for relationships between adults as it is for children. Often, disagreements between parents come about because of an inability to appreciate a difference between them in approach, rather than one approach being right and the other wrong.
Fathers at times may defer to mothers who may convey the idea that they are the experts on child rearing. One father became aware that his attempt to do everything with their baby his wife’s way was interfering with his ability to feel comfortable taking care of the baby. That can then lead to a mother’s feeling that dad is not doing his share. I remember hearing a father who set the table for dinner say, “Watch, she (his wife) will fix the napkins”, which was exactly what she did. We sometimes may do that with our children who are just learning to do things themselves.
Learning that others have their own ideas, which although different may be just as valid as our own, is a big step in development for children. Doing it “my way” is not always the best way forward.