A Treatise on the (Truly) Strong-Willed Child

I hear and read a lot about the strong-willed child.  I see blog posts.  I read tips on how to manage kids who are dead set on doing their own thing.  And I always find that these parents seem to have found a magic bullet – a key that will unlock the sweet and compliant nature in their otherwise stubborn children.

I will insert random happy photos of our children so that you can see it is not all blood, guts, and war around here.  We do actually have fun….sometimes.

I live in a house full of strong-willed people.  I married a strong-willed person (even though he insists the kids get it from their mother!).  And I have hardly ever found a method of undoing our children’s wills and rendering them easy to teach, easy to parent, or easy to work with.  It just doesn’t happen.

What does work?  Time.  Persistence.  A stronger will than the child you are parenting.

Here are a few things that I often see as “tips and tricks” in parenting the strong-willed child.  Honestly, I have to wonder if the authors of such advice have truly strong-willed children or if their children only get stubborn every once in a while.

 

Coaxing and Sugar-Coating

Okay, so nobody calls it this, but the method is still the same.  Your strong-willed child puts up a fight about eating lettuce.  You give him one piece with dressing.  Or you doctor it up in a salad with other ingredients you know he enjoys.  Basically, you avoid going head-to-head with his defiance.  You attempt to make the lettuce palatable.  As Claude said recently, “When I was a kid, I always knew when someone was trying to force me to do something I didn’t want to do.  No matter how sugar-coated it was, I wasn’t going to be tricked.”

And there is the problem with a truly strong-willed individually and the so-called “tips and tricks” to mold them into compliant people.  They see the tricks for what they are….tricks.

Work With and Not Against Your Child’s Strong Will

This sounds so nice to a mom who would like nothing more than peace in her home.  I would love to feel like I am working with my kids and not fighting against them much of the time.  But the problem is that our truly strong-willed children don’t want to work with us.  They want to do their own thing – be their own boss.

Recently, after weeks of battling our 6-year-old over a task that must be done several times each day, I asked her, “Why do you keep fighting me on this?”  She was unemotional at the time, it not being the height of tension between us.  She very calmly and succinctly said, “I just don’t want to obey you.  I want to do what I want to do.”

In a nutshell: sin.

Every child disobeys and can struggle with complying with rules and authorities.  But truly strong-willed children never want to comply.  Some of them act as if rules are there for them to break.  They often don’t even see anything wrong with this.  At least several of my children don’t….and that is not for lack of parental instruction!

How am I supposed to work with this kind of attitude?  I have yet to find out.

Again, the name of the game here is to avoid going head to head with the defiance.

 

Include Your Child In Making Decisions

Again, a nice idea and one that works occasionally in our home.  The problem, as it goes, is that when you “give them an inch, they go a mile”.  When I give my truly strong-willed children license to make decisions for themselves (within appropriate guidelines), I have “success” for a short time.  But I am still fighting the strong will on every other front.

So, do I allow my truly strong-willed children to be a part of every decision that must be made?  This is impossible.  Eventually I have still have to face the giant – their willfulness.  I can not avoid it forever.  And neither can the kids.

 

Find Out Why Your Child Is Really Acting Out

There are times when extenuating circumstances are a major contributing factor in our children’s behaviors.  Times of life transition, when a child is sick, or when he has experienced a big disappointment are understandably difficult for kids to deal with and often result in unwanted behavior as they navigate their emotions.  But in day to day life, our kids rarely have some deep and hidden reason for acting out.

Believe me, I have literally lost sleep and shed tears over this possibility.  Maybe we are completely ruining our children and not providing them the gentlest, most loving, funnest home environment and that is why they are acting out.  Perhaps I am just a huge failure as a mother and don’t know my children well enough to notice that there is something deep within that is troubling them.

There may be a time when these things are true….maybe.  But when I pray and take a step back I can see that it is basically nonsense.  Our children are loved, cared for, and growing and developing quite well.  Our home is not perfect, but upon searching I have yet to find any reason other than what I already stated.

From the mouths of babes.  “I just don’t want to obey you.”

I have heard this statement not only from our 6-year-old, but from each of our truly strong-willed children.  Why are my kids “acting out” against me?  Because they want to be in charge of their own lives and they view rules and authorities as things to be challenged.

What To Do?

I have no quick and easy tips or clear answers.

Prayer.  Time.  Prayer.  Persistence.  Prayer.  Grace.  Prayer.  Wisdom.

Did I mention prayer???

 

The Problem of Sin (Magnified)

Truly strong-willed individuals have the very real struggle with sin that the rest of us have.  It is not in greater proportion in their lives, but it is way more obvious than in more compliant people.  I can say this from seeing the two temperaments juxtaposed every day in our home.

One child looks much less sinful and requires many fewer corrections than another child.  And this same child will insist that she would not sin if not provoked by her siblings, as expressed in this recent statement, “If I didn’t have any brothers or sisters then I wouldn’t have this sin!”

Ummm….wrong.

The constant poking and prodding from annoying siblings brings to light sin that is harboring in her heart.  The same happens with me and, I assume, with you as well.

The thing about a truly strong-willed child is that they are constantly being poked and prodded because they perceive more things as an assault on their autonomy.  They are constantly coming up against rules, regulations, boundaries, limitations, and the authorities who uphold these high walls.  And they will not, in their immature state, suck it up and deal with it.  They will do what they are wired to do: fight.

Their sinful nature takes flight.

Now, I say “immature” because the same exact traits that cause problems when raising truly strong-willed individuals can be a huge asset in a mature person.  Breaking rules in order to do what is truly right, not caring about the consequences to their own person, pushing the boundaries to achieve great things, and standing up to injustice are all good.  But a child hasn’t yet learned how to harness his strong will.  He fights against anything that challenges his own authority in his life.

The Joy of A Challenge

This brings me to another point.  Truly strong-willed kids naturally challenge anything and everything that comes their way.  They find a way to climb under the baby gate so that they can go up the forbidden stairs.  They go back time and time again to the outlet that you scolded them for touching a minute ago.  They challenge your very authority as their parent.  They enjoy a challenge….mostly.

Even then, I find that I still have to fight my super strong-willed children to pursue challenges that are good and beneficial to them.  It really never ends!

Working with this need for a challenge actually does work well for our kids….sometimes.  If I have a child kicking up a fuss, in the right circumstance, I can challenge them to do it.  This works particularly well for our oldest strong-willed kid.  But it only works if he really wants to meet the challenge.  But it does work occasionally.  That’s better than never, right???

 

Loopholes

The truly strong-willed individual is also looking for chinks in your armor.  They are looking for loopholes, gaps, inconsistencies.  These give them a foothold and an opportunity to challenge you – the authority figure.  They will take advantage of these gaps because they really do want to do their own thing their own way.

We just bought a house.  The front yard runs right up to a country highway with a speed limit of 55mph.  Needless to say, we put up a fence shortly after moving in.  The fence is awesome.  It keeps the kids in and the only way they can get out is if a bigger kid opens the gate (and that must be done with parental permission only).  But there is one problem.  The fence ends at the end post of our front porch.   Under the porch there is no barrier.  So there is a gap.  The kids, should they get it in their head to do so, can crawl under the porch and outside the fence without any hindrance.

Only one child has done this and it was by accident.  At least that time it was.  I don’t count on it always being this way.  There might very well come a day when one of our children is dead set on going outside the fence.  He or she will find the gap and go right through.

Mission accomplished.

 

When Wrong is Right And Everything Else is Unfair

Of course, any child might do this, but the thing about our truly strong-willed children is that they will not stop to think if they should take advantage of this loophole.  Of course they should!

When I was a child I remember crossing a boundary in our neighborhood that I knew I wasn’t supposed to cross.  I remember thinking if I should or shouldn’t because it was, in fact, wrong to go past that line.  I chose to do it anyway, but the debate was there and I felt sure that at any moment the police would come and find me.  I was doing something wrong!

Not our kids.  Some of them would never give it a second thought.  And once caught, they will admit to knowing the rules but they will also admit to not caring or that they think the rules somehow didn’t apply that one time.  They are always right because boundaries are meant to be challenged.

They challenge the boundary.  They win.  Success.

And the ensuing fight, “Why am I being punished?  This is so unfair!  It’s your fault!  You set the boundary!”

Going Head to Head

I hate confrontation.  Hate it.  Hate it.  Hate it.

But confrontation is not always bad.  In fact, when parenting a truly strong-willed child, confrontation is both necessary and good.

This is one concept that I read a decade ago when I realized we might have a strong-willed kid on our hands.  Dr. Dobson to the rescue….sort of.  (I have to wonder what was left out of that book or how compliant his strong-willed child actually was.  Hmmm….)

Strong-willed individuals need to see that the authority figures in their lives are worthy of their respect.  They need time and testing to be convinced that the rules and regulations they must comply to are worthwhile.  And they need to find out for themselves if the boundaries are strong enough to deserve their respect and therefore to live within them.

So, boundaries must be firm.  Rules and regulations need to be upheld consistently.  They also need to have a purpose.  Of course, not every rule or social construct has an agreeable purpose.  Do we ever hear about these in our home (and not only from the kids)!

Cultural expectations mostly fall into this category.  Not wearing a hat indoors.  Wearing clean, tidy clothing for church or other outings.  Letting girls go first.  And the like.

Sometimes these cultural expectations must be questioned, but for the most part we tell our kids that they need to honor them in order to respect and honor the people around them.  The “rule” may not make much sense, but they may not defy it just because they don’t like it.  In the real world we have to comply with these unspoken rules every day and so even our toughest, strongest-willed kids must comply albeit with a fight on most occasions.

And as a parental authority, I must act like one.  When our children throw a fit because they don’t want to do something, I make them do it.  In short, I fight them.  I go head to head.  And I hate every minute of it.

 

What’s a Parent To Do?

But what else can I do?  If I coax and sugar-coat, our truly strong-willed kids roll their eyes and see right through the mask.  “Mom is trying to make me eat that lettuce.  I am not going to do it.”

If I try to form an allegiance with them, working with them instead of against them, they see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.  Or they are misinformed, thinking they have more control than they actually do, and a bigger battle ensues.  “But I thought you were coming over to my side of things, Mom!”

If I ask if they would like to be part of the decision making process, they will very likely say, “I choose not to have any lettuce.  Period.”

And if I assume that there is something very wrong with them that they fight on every front, I bandage the symptoms but never address the cause.  I allow their strong will to be left untrained.  This is not in their best interest because the only way to help them use their powers for good is to come head to head with the defiance.  They must learn to submit to authority.  This is not as heavy-handed as it may sound.

Ultimately, their strength of will can only be shaped and molded into something beneficial to them and to others if they will submit to being taught.  If they will submit to instruction.  If they will submit to rules and regulations.  If they can see where a boundary has been set and have the freedom to choose to push that boundary or stay within it after determining which is the better, wiser option.

Because if left unchecked, a super strong-willed individual will fight and push, no matter what the consequences may be.  Ask me how I know.  In our home, we have a few people who are virtually unaffected by ten times the discipline that their more compliant siblings would easily learn from.

When I, as a parent, avoid head to head “combat” with my truly strong-willed child, I may buy myself some peace and quiet right now.  But my child could very well reap a harvest hardship later in life.

 

Choosing to Fight – A Real Life Application

We participate in the National Bible Bee.  Our children are quite good at memorization and teaching them what the Bible says is our ultimate goal in raising them.  It is a natural fit for us.  Except….

Super strong-willed kids.

Many people may disagree with our solution to this, but they are not living in our home with our kids.  So, think what you will.  We have made a calculated decision.

We fight our kids to do Bible Bee.

It sounds terrible, I know.  Shouldn’t they like it?  Shouldn’t they enjoy studying God’s Word?  Shouldn’t it be fun???

We would love nothing more than for our children to delight in studying and memorizing God’s Word.  But for some of them some of the time (and a select few of them most of the time), it is not palatable.  They would rather spend their extra time climbing trees, building forts, and having Nerf wars.  To spend a few hours every day studying and memorizing scripture is not what they would call fun.

It is a little bit like eating lettuce.  We make them do it.  We keep our expectations reasonable, based on their ability and potential.  But we do not let them give it up just because it is not super enjoyable for them (or for us).

We fought our oldest child on the lettuce front for several years.  He threw a fit every single time we ate lettuce.  For years.  We did not require him to eat copious amounts of it, but he had to have one decent-sized serving every time we served lettuce.  We did not relent.  And, being super strong-willed, he started (after a very long time) turning his fight against us into a fight to get the lettuce down.

Now, a handful of years later, he does not love lettuce.  He will still grumble about it every once in a while.  But his appetite has grown to accept lettuce.  He will dish it up without asking and sometimes will even have a second helping.  This is rare, but it gives me hope that something is working so I remember it and am encouraged.

This can apply to any child, no matter the temperament, but for our strong-willed kids it is all the more necessary to fight the good fight.  Engage in pretty much every battle.  Really.  Do it.

Our children may not always enjoy doing Bible study.  But it is vital to their growth.  They need scripture, so we will keep feeding it to them no matter what fight they put up against us.  I feel like I must say that this is, of course, all done with wisdom.  We are not torturing our children.  Neither are we “scarring them for life”.  We are teaching them to be disciplined in one area in hopes that they will grow in Christ and also become disciplined in other areas of their lives.

The Path to Full Potential

In order for our children to reach their full potential, nothing must stand in their way.  I am thinking idealistically because we all know that there are obstacles in life.  But if the main obstacle a person has to overcome is a truly strong-will, it behooves me as a parent to help them tackle that beast.  It can be “tamed” to a point of the child being free to choose whether or not their will should be on or off in a given situation.

If it is always on, they will fight what is uncomfortable and unpleasant.  They may very well fight the things that would strengthen and build them up (like studying God’s Word) to the point of missing out on the benefits of these disciplines.

I do my children no favor when I avoid their willfulness.  It is true what is often said about trong-willed individuals.  Their strong will can be a huge asset to them and to others.  The most successful people are often very strong willed.  They push boundaries for the benefit of others.  They choose to fight injustice.  The will get up time and time again and keep fighting toward a goal.  If they have been trained.  If they have learned to be disciplined.  If they are not a slave to their will but instead are able to submit when necessary.  If, ultimately, they are willing to submit to God’s work in their lives.

Claude and I want to see our children succeed and so we will keep fighting them in every necessary battle to win the war, not against them, but against the sin-driven will that can easily lead them barreling down the wrong track.

I have often felt that I am standing at the bottom of steep hill, desperately trying to push a giant train up the hill that it is so intent on going down.  Down leads to a wreck.  Up leads out to open spaces, peace, success.

Fighting to keep the train moving in the right direction is what must be done.  There comes a point when the train has started moving in the right direction on its own and then less is required of me.  Lord willing, there will come a day when the train is headed fully in the right direction, engines running.  Then the world better look out because a truly strong-willed individual will be roaring down the track, ready to take down all things that go against God and His Word, those that are unjust or unfair, or those that put a limitation on the potential of discovery or accomplishment in a specific area.

It takes a very rare person to be set on that track of their own doing.  It is through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Some pushing and prodding from parental units is certainly appropriate as well.  🙂

 

Reality Check

I will be completely honest here and say that parenting a super strong-willed child is not pleasant all of the time.  There are seasons when it is never pleasant.  When you have multiple children with truly strong wills, then there can be very long seasons when the days are spent in relentless, head to head battles with the wills of your children.  It is exhausting.  It can be very discouraging.  And it is not fun.

I would love to enjoy this season of parenting.  But I don’t always enjoy it.

I would love to enjoy my children in this season of parenting.  But I don’t always enjoy their behavior and attitudes.

The reality is that even when you find something that works to train your incredibly strong-willed child to use that strength for their good and the benefit of others, it requires a lot of hard work.  And that is not always enjoyable.

Sounds like a really uplifting end, doesn’t it?

I really do believe that very strong-willed people have potential that is greater than the average, compliant individual.  Because there is greater potential there is more work involved in training and preparing that individual to reach their fullest potential.

As a parent to very strong-willed kids, I must work harder in training them than training our other children who are a little more easy-going.  It does not mean that I give the “easier” kids the short end of the stick.  They are just easier to raise.  The heed correction.  They listen to instruction.  They do what they are told and they are benefited by teaching and training more quickly than their stronger-willed siblings.

In order to accomplish the same goal – full potential – a truly strong-willed child requires more of the parent.  The end goal is not different.  I do not think that my more compliant children can settle for less.  I do not think that my strong-willed children should settle for less.

We are not settling here.

We are working to the degree that is required to help our children reach their fullest potential in every aspect of their lives.

And, no, the success of a child is not dependent on his parents.  But as a parent, you know how much you love your child and long to see him soar in life.  You give it all you’ve got because that is what God requires of you as a parent.  He will take care of the end result.  But I, for one, want to know that I have done all that I can to show my children the way in which they should go.

No matter how easy, hard, or enjoyable the process may (or may not) be.

Final Thoughts

There is so much more that can be said.  And so many other unrealistic “tips and tricks” that I would love to counter.  I will say that as a parent it is easy to wish that our truly strong-willed children would just give up and comply.  Why can’t they be like their “easier” siblings?  Why are there so many of them in our family?  How does God think that we can raise them?  It’s an impossible task!

Yes.  It is impossible.

That is why prayer is so important.  God knows your kids.  God knows you.  God knew that you and your strong-willed child would be going rounds over wearing socks with snow boots.  He knew that the battles wouldn’t end there.  He knows that you are weary.  He knows.

God also knows exactly how He wired your child.  He knows what makes her tick.  He knows what sets her off.  He knows where her heart is and only He can reach it.

He will give you wisdom when you need it and grace to get through each day.  He will also give these things to your child.

Raising truly strong-willed children has been truly humbling.  Claude and I often say that we would have written a parenting book if we were only working with certain ones of our children.  But God knew better and gave us a house full of kids that keep our egos in check and lead us straight to Christ.  And it is the best place for us to be – unable to rely on our own wisdom and innate ability.  Fully reliant on the Lord from moment to moment.

Then, no matter what the failures and successes are, God alone gets the glory.

 

 

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