wilful understanding

My brother and his wife had a daughter, and she was easy. Slept through the night. Did what she was told. Thrived on order. If it was bedtime, she happily went off to bed. No problem. So when it came time to have another kid, they had delusions of another bundle of joy. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Of course they loved the second daughter. It’s a given, right? You love your kid. But where the first one thrived on rules and order, the other little girl greeted every rule with a stubborn ‘Why?’.

The funny thing was that as much as they knew that I adored the first child, they assured me before I met the second that I was going to love her. Although I live far away, modern communication allows me to keep in regular contact, and as the time drew closer for my first trip to meet the less-than-easy one, I was assured, ‘You’re really going to like her. She has the sort of personality that reminds me a bit of you.’ What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Well, she’s wilful.’

That’s a positive thing, right? Wilful. I was taking it as positive.

I met Wilful before she had much command of any language. She was prone to tantrums of a magnitude that I can barely describe. Later, as she was able to articulate herself a bit better, she would report, ‘Wilful is freaking out.’ And freak out she would. Her running commentary was quite helpful.

She grew up a bit, as children do, and as her language skills developed, she also developed an obsession or two. Chocolate milk was a favourite. She’d awaken in the morning and not quite fully conscious, she’d begin braying for ‘Chocolatate‘. She loved a mermaid outfit so much that she insisted on wearing it everyday. No matter what the setting of the day’s activities was.

All that is normal kid’s stuff, right? Idiosyncratic speech. Wanting to dress one’s self. These are par for the course. Wouldn’t even call those obsessions. Not really.

But all along she was on a collision course to her real obsession. I don’t know if it had anything to do with hairstyles at the outset, but Wilful was suddenly very keen on her scissors. There’s always some crafty project going on, so it wasn’t all that out of the ordinary at first.

But one day, she presented one of her parents with a clump of her own hair. The look on her little face almost said, ‘I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I’ve really done something that I can’t undo.’ All while holding a handful of her hair.

My brother and I talked about it at some point, and he described the story up until that point. I think if this had happened while we were children, the scissors would simply have been confiscated. Years later, we might slowly be introduced to the possibility of unsupervised scissor use.

Maybe not.

It’s also possible that the parenting style employed with us would’ve decided to ‘let the kid cut his hair till he has no more hair.’ That seems like the sort of resigned frustration that we brought out in our parents.

But they weren’t going to let this defeat them. Wilful’s parents resolved to come up with creative ways to distract her from cutting her hair. Dolls were introduced that started out with flowing locks, and in stages they had shorter and shorter hairstyles.

Calm, measured discussions about how hair took a long time to grow back were seemingly understood by Wilful. She’d scurry off after one of these talks and soon enough, whether it was hours or days later, there she’d reappear with a fresh new missing spot where her hair used to be.

Finally, as her fourth birthday approached, the unavoidable happened. At some point, she’d stopped even trying to control her desires and had shorn herself to the point where there was nearly no more hair to cut. The offending scissors were taken away for the foreseeable future, but to be honest it was in many ways too late.

They went to a place that specialised in children’s hair, and they made the best out of the situation. I saw the pixie cut in photos, and it really was attractive. So problem solved. They went back to their lives, and the whole ordeal of Wilful cutting her hair was behind them. Order had been restored.

One day, my sister-in-law and her mother were talking while the younger daughter sat quietly colouring nearby. Eventually, the conversation made it’s way to the subject of what Wilful had been up to lately. They watched the little girl as she was so intently making sure the crayons stayed within the lines.

A few minutes later, they noticed that she’d stopped what she was doing, and was staring off into the distance. The little girl’s mother and grandmother looked from her to each other, and waited a moment to see what would happen next. Eventually, the silence was too much, and one of the women asked, ‘Wilful, honey. Is everything ok? What’re you doing?

The little girl came out of her trance, and finally answered, ‘I’m thinking about cutting my hair.’



  1. Yeah, I’m the wilful child in my family. My mother delights in telling stories of my childhood stubborness. I was dyslexic and had a lisp that made the wilful thing even more exciting if you can imagine. Bathwater that was too cool was too hot, and I meant it loudly in a shrill voice, with tears. In the summer I wanted to wear shorts but I said ‘sorts’ and my family would tease me and I would yell and be very stern, after all I thought I was saying right.

    I suppose what I should be saying is that I grew up to be very independant…an independent thinker, never succumbed to peer pressure in school, thought things through and made my own decisons, for better or worse, and I’m able to take care of myself (maintain my car and home by myself).

    Wilful will be awesome as she grows up. There will be countless sleepless night for her folks but they will be rewarded with an amazing woman for a daughter.

    1. This comment really made me smile.

      I only *know* you through twitter and our limited contact when you guest blogged on my teablog, but I already had a sense that this was your personality. Of course, I didn’t know the particulars about your story.

      Nevertheless, I’m sure your parents are very proud of how you turned out.

  2. ah, hair.

    i would like to lay money on her having ‘menstrual’ and ‘relationship end’ haircuts in the future.
    there was this one time i went to a friend’s house. i had PMT and, honestly, a bar of chocolate would have done me very well, but NOOOOO – my friend offered to shave the sides off my shoulder length hair. and i agreed. and the next morning i woke up, i had my period, and i also had a brixton feminist squatter’s hairdo.
    lucky me.

    it does eventually get less extreme with age.

    1. Elaine, I want to write some blogposts based solely on your comments. It’d be going down the rabbit hole if I really followed through on my thoughts.

      I don’t think my brother wants to think about *‘menstrual’ and ‘relationship end’ haircuts* with his 4yr-old just yet.

      Oh, before I forget…I’d like to work ‘brixton feminist squatter’s hairdo’ into a conversation.

  3. I love Wilful. One of the things I love most about The Nephew (that drives his parents, and mine, to distraction, probably because they see him more than I do) is how opinionated and stubborn he is.

    As a child, I gave myself a lovely haircut with safety scissors. There are many photos of me with no bangs, looking quizzical and shorn. I don’t remember why I did it. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Willful children often grow up into the most amazing adults. Or so I’d like to think.

    1. ‘Willful children often grow up into the most amazing adults. Or so I’d like to think.’ This seems to be the consensus from the comments here and on google+, as well as facebook, and I think that’s all well and good unless you’re the parent of that wilful child in the moment of difficulty.

      What I’m most impressed with, when it comes to the specific case of my brother and his wife, is that they seem to take all of it in stride. Not at all sure how I’d deal with such a situation.

  4. I have known Wilful from the day she was born and I just think she is incrediable. Adults should not be allowed to sit calmly and confidently in a world that runs smoothly. I am the proud mother of a grown-up “Wilful” and must confess that every day remains an adventure. Enjoy the ride! I remember the lunch when my Mother “noticed” I had cut my hair, it was not pretty. She had slept through the actual event (which I did because they were asleep), then she fed be breakfast, brushed my hair, took me to church, and we came home for lunch…..the awakening came shortly after we all sat down at the table! Martha

    1. Oh Martha, I thought I’d responded to this.

      I’m really pleased that this has touched a nerve with some people. And that the best responses have come from people who most identify themselves as having been Wilful.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. I remember but it wasn’t until I was 13 that I placed a bowl on my head and took to the shears. Next day I looked like the Beatles. Took a long time for my parents to forget. Though I had to ask permission for use of scissors for what seemed a very long time.

  6. Willful will be just fine. You can’t suppress creative urges, and she is clearly moved by such things. She is her own canvas.

    Alas, it could be worse. Willful could’ve chosen Good as her canvas, instead …

    My mother says that by all accounts, I was a well-behaved child. So much so, that it caused some adults a little concern. I relieved them all when – at 5 years old – I took my favorite pair of battery-operated Snoopy scissors (because, really, shouldn’t companies market such things to all young ‘uns?) and gave my 3-year-old sister a haircut that caused me to hear my mother swear for the very first time. My story was that my sister “asked” for the haircut. Whether I meant that literally or figuratively, I do not recall. [coughs.]

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