They say that if you teach a strong willed child to do what is right, that child will do what is right with a strong will. It’s true as long as you don’t break his or her will first. Raising a strong-willed child can drain all your energy if you’re not careful and creative with your parenting, or if you forget to trust that God has a good plan for your child. The smarter your strong-willed child, the harder your job as a parent. Here are five tips to help turn the tension of raising a strong willed child into joy:
1. Never enter into a battle of wills: The trick to loving and parenting a strong-willed child is to never enter into a battle of wills. You will be exhausted. If you win, you will break the child’s will. If you lose, your child will walk all over you. Your job is not to teach your child who is in charge through painful disciplinary techniques. Your job is to help your child redirect his or her strong will toward the good, while enforcing certain basic house rules. Does this sound easier said than done? It is. But keep reading. I have some ideas to get you started.
2. Write basic house rules and stick to them: Make a list of house rules and be sure to write them down. Here’s our list. Younger children need fewer rules — try to stick with about one rule per year of age. So if you have a four-year-old, four house rules is about enough. If you have multiple children of different ages, write enough rules to meet the needs of the oldest. Post them in a central place such as on the refrigerator. Go over your house rules regularly, at least once a day. We go over our rules every morning after prayers. When your kids break them, recite the broken rule back to them. For example, one of our house rules is, “Be grateful, not jealous.” Whenever the whining and begging starts, I just keep repeating, “Be grateful, not jealous.”
3. Discipline with natural consequences and personal reflection, not pain: There is a temptation with a strong-willed child to enforce discipline — to get stronger and stronger — to show the child who is in charge. When your child tests your patience, it’s easy to just default to a standard punishment such as time-out, loss of dessert or spanking. Or like most parents, we just default to yelling. Yelling and spanking aren’t long-term solutions. You might get an the immediate result that you want (a kid that stops the undesired behavior), but in the end yelling and painful physical punishments simply cause you to enter into a battle of the wills with your child and cause more harm than good.
Rather than yelling or corporal punishment, children need attuned parenting for healthy brain development. This is where you have to be creative as a parent. Instead of resorting to knee-jerk punishments like spanking or taking away treats, choose disciplinary techniques that require reflection or allow your child to make up for inappropriate behavior. For example, if one child is mean to another, perhaps the mean child needs to do chores or something kind for the child he or she was hurting. Older children can write letters of apology to people they have wronged. We often ask our children to write essays about the house rules they have broken. Writing punishments accomplish two things: they allow a child to reflect on what he or she did wrong, and they give us both a little time and space away from each other to cool down.
Dr. Joan Luby is a professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Her research shows that positive parenting of toddlers in stressful situations, rather than scolding or corporal punishment, is actually associated with an increase in the size of certain areas of the brain.
4. Redirect selfish desires: Strong-willed desires are fundamentally selfish. Our job as parents is to refocus that strong will away from selfish desires and toward the good. Give your child opportunities for leadership, even if it means letting a strong-willed 3-year-old be in charge of a situation for a few minutes. Let a younger child “babysit” a sibling while you cook dinner. By school age, help your strong-willed child immerse him- or herself in a cause — supporting an animal shelter, working in a food pantry, caring for an elderly neighbor, etc. Older children need real challenges as outlets for their will — consider thrusting them into athletics, academics or musical endeavors that will push them to the limits of their personal fortitude. Outdoor survival programs and longer hiking, bicycling, or canoeing trips are good summer options for strong-willed children.
5. Ease your child’s strong will through tenderness and love: It’s easy to be so tired and frustrated with a strong-willed child that we forget to be tender, gentle and loving. Yet without our example, our children cannot learn to be tender and gentle themselves. Find routine times in the day to physically touch and hug your children and talk to them in a tender, loving voice. Good times for these moments are first thing in the morning, when your child returns home from school and at bedtime.
Investing in your child now is the best investment of your life — spending time loving and raising your child will reap dividends of joy. Are you still struggling to parent with joy? Here are 12 tips for raising joyful children.
Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.