For 22 years, 6 months and 21 days, I was a perfect parent. I knew exactly how to get babies to sleep, toddlers to eat, and teens to clean their rooms. I had parenting under control.
Then I had my first baby, and I learned that real, live children demand a lot more than I expected.
For the next 11 years, 4 months, and 6 days, I considered myself a pretty good parent. We had our moments, but mostly our family danced to a comfortable rhythm.
Then our fourth child was born with an iron will and fierce determination to run the show. I discovered that my previous parenting success had relied on relatively compliant children.
I wish I’d known author Cynthia Tobias in those days. The self-described strong-willed mother of a strong-willed son, Tobias, packs a lot of practical advice into her aptly titled book, “You Can’t Make Me: [But I Can Be Persuaded].” She offers strategies for reducing conflict with strong-willed children and reasons to celebrate the gifts they bring to the world.
“Strong will, in and of itself, is a very positive trait,” writes Tobias in the first chapter. “It is a great gift to have a child with firm convictions, a high spirit, and a sense of adventure. Why not direct that wonderful and mysterious energy into the right channels, and use that marvelous determination to achieve positive results?”
That’s well and good, but how do you motivate a child who knows you can’t really make her do anything? What discipline methods work for a child who isn’t concerned about the consequences of not obeying? How can parents hold onto authority without losing the relationship— or their minds?
Tobias offers “Five to Thrive” tips for bringing out the best in a strong-willed child.
Choose your battles
Don’t make everything non-negotiable. Ask yourself if each conflict is worth the fight. “Is this a go-to-the-wall issue?” Tobias asks. “In the grander scheme of things, will it matter a year from now?”
Lighten up, but don’t let up
A sense of humor can turn conflict into cooperation a surprising number of times. “Humor catches the strong-willed child off guard and might disarm him before he even realizes what’s happening,” Tobias says. “Best of all, it can offer what I call a ‘fire escape’—an opportunity to pull back gracefully and cooperate.” Ask more questions; issue fewer orders
Asking a question that assumes the best in a child almost always results in moving toward what the adult wants the child to do. But be careful: some questions are better than others.
“Never use the words why and you in the same sentence,” Tobias writes. “For example: Why won’t you listen?…The combination of these two words…can be more explosive than you ever intended, since they almost always result in defensiveness and resistance.”
So what kinds of questions can build relationships?
- Do you want help with that?—signals respect for the child and an understanding that he has control over himself and his actions.
- Are you annoying me on purpose?—a great accompaniment to your “sense-of-humor” strategy.
- Do you know why I asked for that?—creates a dialogue in which mutual respect can flourish and satisfies a strong-willed child’s need to know the reasons for your requests.
- Is that what you meant to do?—shows you’re expecting the best and shifting ownership back to the child.
- Asking “Okay?”—a small point of negotiation usually makes a difference. Asking “Okay?” doesn’t mean “You don’t have to do it.” It means “You can choose the consequences.” Hand out more tickets; give fewer warnings
Most strong-willed children would rather suffer a consequence than endure a lecture. Plus, they need to know you’re not going to keep warning without getting around to delivering any consequences. Make sure your child always knows your love is unconditional
Your child will learn there’s a price to pay for making a wrong decision, but she has to know that losing your love is not part of the cost. “When strong-willed children feel secure in [a parent’s] love,” says Tobias, “you may be surprised at how seldom they test it.” Not every strategy works every time, and some even “wear out” after awhile, Tobias says. Parents need to know their child and remain flexible and creative in order to bring out the best in everyone without sacrificing any bottom-line accountability.
Like Tobias, I’ve learned that a genuine, loving, sustained effort can bring about more growth than I thought possible—in all of us— and it has yielded rich and resilient relationships.
For 23 years and 20-some days, I have been the mom of a strong-willed child. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done; it’s also the most rewarding. I may be a little tired and scruffy as a result, but like the storybook “Velveteen Rabbit,” I am a whole lot more real.
Linda Wacyk is a regular Country Lines freelance writer, educator, grandmother and content empty-nester.