It was inevitable, I suppose, that my struggles with my strong-willed child were eventually going to reach the point where I had to do something. And since I’ve been a parent long enough to know that I have to take the lead on pretty much everything, I also knew the change was going to have to start with me.
Last spring I sat down with a friend and family member who has walked this path before me. She shared some of her stories and boiled down parenting a strong-willed child this way:
- Pick your battles.
- Battles chosen MUST be won.
- Do. Not. Get. Angry.
- They are far more sensitive than they appear based on their let-me-tap-dance-on-the-line-in-the-sand habits.
- They will not always choose rightly or wisely, but they must always experience the consequences.
She gave me a book called Aaron’s Way: the journey of a strong-willed child. But the truth is, some of her stories intimidated me so thoroughly, I stuck the book on the shelf to await a time when I felt I had the emotional stamina to address it.
I uncovered it a couple of weeks ago, and I knew it was time.
Life with Nicholas had been pretty rough. He was doing things like hitting the kid who rides in our carpool. Kicking his brother’s seat–repeatedly, for the entire trip home, as the escalating reactions from his brother and his mother demonstrated his power and control.
Those after school hours are the worst. He crashes, as if he’s spent the whole day being good–and he’s very good at school–and now he has to let the demon ride. And it’s a hell of a demon, let me tell you.
I didn’t even like him. How do you think kind of admission makes a mother feel?
I read Kendra Smiley’s book and realized, first, that my child is not nearly as strong-willed as hers. And secondly, that although I can see that a well-formed strong-willed child will become a adult who can safely navigate a world full of pitfalls, I cannot consider myself “blessed with a strong willed child.” I just can’t.
I was kind of hoping for a step-by-step plan, and I was disappointed to find that was not the purpose of the book. In the end, it boiled down to those same lessons imparted by my friend and family member last spring:
- Pick your battles.
- Battles chosen MUST be won.
- Do. Not. Get. Angry.
- They are far more sensitive than they appear.
- They will not always choose wisely, but they must always experience the consequences.
What the book did, however, was tell stories from different families that illustrated the success and failure of adhering to or failing to adhere to these principles.
A few weeks ago, I told the boys to clean the bathrooms before the family literacy night at school. Nicholas really wanted to go. But he was not going to do that cleaning. Organic consequence: if you don’t do your work, you will not go to the literacy night.
The situation escalated predictably, and two hours later, with dinner on the table, he still hadn’t lifted a finger. In fact, he had spent the entire two hours lying on the living room floor repeating that he wasn’t going to clean a bathroom.
Two. Hours. He gave up two hours of his life to avoid a job that would take twenty minutes. If that doesn’t illustrate the mindset of a strong willed child, nothing will.
I was simmering, folks. But I was trying really hard not to boil over.
I told him it was dinner time, so he’d stay home and clean with Daddy instead of going to the literacy night.
When he realized I was serious, that child flew up the stairs and cleaned the bathroom. Did a pretty decent job of it, too. He chose to forgo dinner instead of the literacy night.
Well, he did the cleaning, so we let him go.
A few nights later I read a story in Smiley’s book that paralleled this one almost exactly. “Mistakenly, I thought I won the battle,” the mother wrote. “And then I realized that my three-year-old won, because she did exactly what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it and not when I asked her to do it. I actually lost the battle.”
I feel guilty if I require Nicholas to experience the pain of the natural consequences of his choices.
No wonder he’s so good at pushing my buttons.
In the past two weeks, I shut down all my buttons. The angry buttons, and the guilty buttons. And you know what? He realized on the spot that something had changed, and his behavior shifted on the spot, too. He’s not compliant by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s also not straining at the line in the sand as long or as hard as he was.
I’m not delusional enough to think my struggles with my strong-willed child are over. But I don’t feel helpless anymore. I don’t feel like a leaky rowboat trying to ride out a hurricane. And I’ve actually been able to enjoy most of the time I’ve spent with him…which is a good thing for both of us.
There is hope. Thank God.
Great post. Your Nicholas stories remind me so much of one of my own kids. I’ll have to check out that book. We homeschool, and sometimes it drains all of my emotional energy just to get him to do his work. But when he wants to do it he can whip through it so fast I think he needs more challenging stuff. It can be a struggle not to let him push my buttons, he definitely helps me develop patience! Words to ponder…
Love that you are trying to learn to follow the suggested steps. Know how hard it is to neutralize your buttons. Will add you and Nicolas to my prayers. Blessings.
This is so great and I am glad you shared. My strong-willed child is 3 years old right now but I foresee having the sorts of experiences you describe with Nicholas with my Vincent as he ages.
Intersestingly, my first thought when I read that you let him forego dinner to go to the literacy night was that you had not won the battle…but not for the reason you later describe. I was just thinking Nicholas hadn’t really experienced any consequences of not cleaning the bathroom (which is part of what you say) but the reason he “won” was because he got to do what he wanted and when he wanted.
Thanks for sharing. Maybe I’ll pick up that book and read it to help me gear up for the next 10-15 years with Vincent.
I’d love to hear from any of you, HOW do you / did you “neutralize” your buttons, to not let them get pushed? It it there in the 5 guidelines?
It’s not a slam dunk, by any means. I am getting better as time goes on. Some of it is learning to head off trouble before it gets started. Two days ago we had an ugly, ugly night. Or I should say, Nicholas did. I am, over time, learning not to get angry, learning to cut the power to the buttons. But I didn’t want to do it two days in a row, so before school yesterday I took him aside and told him what to expect after school, and what I expected of him. As in, “if I tell you to do a chore, I don’t want you to act like you acted yesterday.” That helped. The first words out of his mouth when he got home were, “Do you have anything you want me to do?”
The other thing that is helping I outlined in this post just last week:
Nicholas has reacted really well to this sort of visioning. It’s given me something to refer back to. “What did you write on your shield? Are you being that person right now? Is this who you want to be?”
Ahhh, I”m seeing it clearer now. Thank you! It’s our 4th and youngest who is very bright and strong-willed, it’s been a growth experience to understand him and not steer him too hard. Thanks again, I’ll keep in touch.