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A Stubborn Child is Often a Fearful Child

by Katie Greulich


My daughter, six going on sixteen, as some might say, shouts at me that she will not see the dentist. She will bite his hand. “Okay, that’s it,” she keeps repeating. “I’m done. We’re going home.”

She battles me on the simplest tasks. Getting dressed, combing hair, cleaning toys. This afternoon, she fought me about brushing her teeth before the dentist. Normal childlike behavior. But I feel drained and manipulated, as if I’ve been fighting with an adult.

There are other things too. Things that developmentally, she’s capable of—riding a two-wheeler, buckling her own seatbelt, tying her own shoelaces—but refuses to learn. She takes control where she can.


Positive parenting literature insists that stubborn is a bad word. “Replace with strong-willed” the psychologists who pen the articles suggest. But what’s wrong with calling it what is? Hard as a rock, solid as a wall, impervious as boulder, pure, unadulterated passed-down-from-German-ancestors stubbornness. Her paternal grandmother refused to sign over her house in her son’s name, even if it meant the nursing home would use it as collateral.


Inside, the whirring of dental drills agitates the dull ache in my temples. In the presence of the receptionists and dental assistants, my daughter freezes up. She pinches her tiny mouth into a tight pout. She answers questions in single words, but not impolitely. Only I can sense the fraught energy. Only I can feel my haggard sadness at our arguing, at my inability to stay sane, to not lose my temper.


“I can’t sit in the chair with you anymore, remember? You’re too big now,” I whisper to her as we walk down the hallway, lit by hazy fluorescent lamps. She flashes me a look that lets me know that if we weren’t in the presence of others, she’d let me have it. Her jaw is locked, and she opens her eyes wide enough to make me think she’ll never blink again. I want to sit in the waiting room and read the novel I’d brought along, but my fear of a public tantrum outweighs my desire to bask in solitude, even for just a small while.


I take a seat in hallway as she chooses her fluoride flavors. When the assistant asks her what she wants to watch on the television overhead, she says, flatly, “I don’t want to watch anything.” For some reason, the guy keeps flipping through channels.

“You like Masha and the Bear,” I yell from the hallway. “I don’t want to watch TV,” she says again. While her voice sounds calm, there’s an emotional undercurrent.

I back off. The guy turns on Masha and the Bear.


The hygienist tells me she’s due for x-rays. Inside, I cringe, but stand my ground. “I’m going to stay right here,” I tell my daughter. “You’ll be okay.” She almost imperceptibly rolls her eyes.

I sigh as she moves past me. She wore a dress that was too short, her growing legs stretching out like grape bushes in a vineyard. Her sneakers are a pastel rainbow color. She wears no socks.


The back of her head is like a riptide, a cowlick at the base of her skull. She walks in her way. Arms hanging stiffly, her hips swaying in tiny half-circles, her footsteps light, but deliberate. She looks so small as she nears the end of the hallway, following the hygienist. My heart gets caught in my throat as it occurs to me, she’s doing just fine. She’s just a child who’s scared of the dentist.


A memory uproots itself: I’m 18, at what would be my final pediatric dental appointment. Oh Katie, the hygienist laughs. I’m looking at the notes from your first visit when you were five. ‘Lots of tears,’ it says!


According to the positive parenting articles, children express emotions in a myriad of ways. Anger or frustration is a sign that a need isn’t being met. The sensitive, docile child that I was cried, my daughter, fierce and resolute, argues. The underlying emotion, fear, is all the same.

Later, when the dentist swoops in, he tells me that her six-year old molars have arrived. There’s a puppy face sketched onto his faceguard. It’s hard not to laugh. “The one molar is growing in a bit jagged there,” he says. “Between that and her underbite, I’m thinking she’ll be an early orthodontist patient.”

I smirk. Even her teeth won’t cooperate.


“You did so good!” I say as we walk to the car. She peers inside her goodie bag and removes the Cinderella sticker. She doesn’t respond and I can’t see her face, but her energy has shifted. I know the rest of the day will be fine.

I buckle her in and kiss her cheek. “No cavities. You sat in the chair by yourself. You went get the x-rays by yourself, look at you, so big.”


She puts the Cinderella sticker on her chest and smiles without showing her teeth. She doesn’t speak until we are halfway home. Her obstinance has weaned. “Mommy?”

“Yeah?”

“That wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” I say, “it wasn’t.”

Katie Greulich is a writer based in Ramsey, New Jersey. She earned her MA in English/writing from William Paterson University in 2012. She has over a decade experience teaching writing to both high school and college students. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, and The Good Mother Project, and forthcoming in The Manifest Station.

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