Merriam-Webster defines strong-willed as “very determined to do something even if other people say it should not be done.” Most parents, however, don’t need a dictionary to tell them what strong-willed means. Those parents who are raising a strong-willed child typically know exactly what that means and what it looks like.
Most parents know they’re dealing with a strong-willed child even if they don’t call it that. A strong-willed child is one who often resists. That is, they don’t take “no” for an answer. They often ask, “Or else what?!” And they know that there’s really nothing they have to do. This attribute often displays itself in the earliest years, even months, of life. An eighteen-month-old that doesn’t want to eat green peas cannot be made to eat the peas. They can be put in her mouth, she can be encouraged to chew and swallow, but it is ultimately up to her whether or not she eats them.
While the adjective “strong-willed” often is used as a negative personality descriptor, that is most often the sentiment for the trait when it has taken the wrong direction. Unhealthy manifestations of strong will include being bossy, competitive to a fault, wanting everyone else to do things their way, difficulty playing on a team, and more. This can result in pushing peers away and driving parents to insanity.
Strong will is, in and of itself, a very positive trait. A person with a strong will is one who is willing to step up when no one else is or when no one else will. It’s a person who doesn't shrink back or give up when all the odds look against them. They have strong convictions and are not easily conquered or discouraged. These are qualities that most parents desire their children to embody in healthy doses. Parents can celebrate their strong-willed children and encourage them in the right direction.
Raising a strong-willed child can leave parents feeling beat down at times. There are some tactics parents can employ to help move everyone in the right direction, but before considering any of these tactics, there are three basic tenets that parents must understand about a strong-willed child.
1. It’s not authority strong-willed children (or adults) have trouble with, it is how the authority is community. The pointed finger, bossy tone, yelling, and “I’m the boss and I told you to” style of communication does not work.
2. Strong-willed people typically don’t need to control others, they just do not want to let anyone have all of the control away from them. They don’t want to feel like they have no control over what they do. Sharing the control (in smaller things, when possible), can go a long way.
3. The quality of relationship is directly related to how good the communication will be. If there is a good relationship between a person of influence (parent, teacher, etc.) and a strong-willed child, that child will do anything possible to keep that relationship intact.
Once parents have a grasp on these three basic tenets, there is a variety of strategies parents can use with their strong-willed child. Here are three:
Use the Magic Word.
There’s one small word that can work like magic from toddlerhood to senior adults. No, it's not “please” (although that never hurts). The other magic word to use when dealing with a strong will is “okay.” By simply placing the word “okay” at the end of a request, it can gently rock a strong will into agreement.
Ask Questions, Don’t Issue Demands.
Strong-willed children shut down in the face of demands--it’s that control thing. Rather than coming at them with demands, a better strategy is asking questions. Asking questions can shift the responsibility over to them and it changes the dynamic.
Be the Example.
Parents are the example. Parents are modeling for their kids what their behavior should be. Children parrot parents' mannerisms, tone, and ways of dealing with adversity. They observe and internalize parents' words and actions, “Oh that’s what adults do. That’s how you get people to obey—by yelling at them a little bit more, etc. etc.” While there may not be immediate results, sowing into being an example for kids will yield long-term benefits.
Beyond understanding a child’s behavior, beyond having strategies to encourage a strong will in the right direction, there is a fundamental component of raising a strong-willed child that parents must keep in mind. In the midst of what can be exhausting exchanges that often feel like battles, parents must remember that God created each of us for a purpose. There is no coincidence. God gives every child to their parent with purpose. It’s not a mistake. That strong-willed child is going to change the world.
[Editor's Note: This blog post was adapted from a portion of the "Navigating Your Child's Education" podcast episode "Raising a Strong-Willed Child," a conversation with Cynthia Tobias, author of 14 books including "You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child." To hear more of Tobias' wisdom and wit, don't miss this episode and check out her website and resources.]