I have strong willed children.
Some parents and adults do not like a child to be strong willed and will do everything they can to extinguish that personality trait. There’s the old saying; a child should be seen and not heard.
Me? I see a ton of value in a child with a strong will and strong convictions. I don’t want to raise door mats and wall flowers; I want my kids to make a difference in this world. That will require a personality that isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. And boy, my kids are good at that.
Just ask my son’s teachers. Most of his teachers and coaches have told me they actually love that about him, they love his big personality. But it can be a handful for an adult when they come across a child that, while respecting authority, is absolutely not intimidated by it, and will respectfully go head to head with an authority figure that they believe is clearly in the wrong. My son actually hates it when I get involved with his issues at school, telling me that he is perfectly capable of negotiating with his teachers and the Principal on his own. Of course, as a parent, I do get involved when I need to.
There’s a big difference between a strong willed child with bad behaviour, and a strong willed, well-mannered child that has the confidence to take on their world.
The typical negative image of a strong willed child is probably one where the child is unyielding, inflexible, obstinate, contrary, wayward and unruly. I don’t like those kinds of traits any more than you do.
However, a strong willed child that is determined, strong minded, iron willed, and resolute with a balanced stubborn streak is what I am interested in. A child that won’t buckle when faced with pressure, adversity and challenges.
Both of my kids seemed to come prewired as both shy and yet strong willed. In a previous post I talked about how I worked to replace their shy tendencies with confidence for social and interpersonal settings. But tackling their strong willed tendencies was a little more complicated. I didn’t want to remove their natural strong will like I did their shyness, but rather refine and harness it.
So how do you do that? How do you teach kids to be polite, with manners, yet firm and independent thinkers? How do you teach them to stand up for justice, to respect authority, yet not be afraid to challenge it when need be? To not be intimidated by someone in a position of authority that has a different set of values than theirs?
I knew from the beginning that this would be no small task. It didn’t take long after I had my firstborn to realize I was dealing with a very stubborn little girl. She challenged me often and persistently and I had to constantly remind myself that I wanted to help her hone that strong will into a skill. I didn’t want to break it, but I also didn’t want her strong will to become a stumbling block in her life.
It’s taken a lot of work; calibrating and recalibrating over the years to find the balance between confident and cheeky. To harness their stubbornness so that it can become a positive trait. Just as we gave them appropriate challenges that eliminated their shyness and replaced it with confidence, we use a similar approach here.
In the future I want to write about a few other topics that are closely related to this subject; accountability, structure and boundaries. Because giving the kids boundaries and holding them accountable for their behaviour has been critical in making sure that they develop a strong will that’s healthy and beneficial, and not unruly.
But for now, I’ll give you a few examples of those boundaries and behaviours in action, and how they are helping shape the will of my children.
Back when they were small, I had the three count system (I think every parent has the three count system). Whenever they had trouble listening, I’d give them the three count; One….two….three. I was always very consistent with the system, so if they reached three without changing their behavior, there would always be appropriate consequences.
The three count system had another side to it though. It allowed my children to decide whether they were willing to challenge my authority at the expense of dealing with whatever consequences I deemed appropriate. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that they were strong-willed and so it was just natural that there were times that they willfully decided they won’t obey the rules, they’ll take the three count. At such times I would just stand my ground and tell them that they have made their choice and subsequently have to live with the consequences.
The positive side of this was that it allowed them the freedom to realize that sometimes in standing up for what you believe in, you will also face consequences and they could calculate whether or not they were willing to pay the price.
On one such occasion, my son challenged one of his teachers when she treated another student rather unfairly. In standing up for someone else, he earned himself a detention session. But he deemed it well worth it, for fairness sake, and said he would do it again. I wasn’t angry at him for getting this particular detention, and I supported him in his decision. The kids know I have their back.
From day one, I’ve never allowed my son to sit at the back of the class in school. He’s always been a very busy child, and I want his attention to be focused on the teacher, and away from as much distraction as possible. My preferred spot is for him to be somewhere in the class that’s front and center, and so all these years he’s chosen a desk near the front. Recently he had a particular teacher tell him to go sit at the back of the class. They’re not allowed to speak in class during the lesson, and when she heard someone speaking, she turned around and wrongly accused him of being the speaker. My son told her that he wasn’t the one speaking, but she wouldn’t listen and told him to go sit at the back. He refused to go to the back, instead moving to the desk directly in front of hers, telling her that if she really wanted him at the back of the class she would have to phone and get approval from his mother.
My son knows from years of experience that if he should ever come home and tell me that he’s now sitting at the back of the class, that I’ll tell him that he’s not allowed to sit there, and that it’ll be better for him if he rectifies that situation on his own rather than getting me involved. Because I will get involved. I won’t be rude, but I will be insistent. All of my kid’s teachers know me by name, and most are on my auto dial contact list. My kids know this, they know I will not buckle, that I will hold them accountable, and so they handle their behaviour accordingly.
We have a structured home life that includes some boundaries and where each of us are accountable for our behaviour. Maintaining that structure with a pair of strong willed kids hasn’t always been easy, but over the years I’ve developed a few tricks to make life easier.
For example, making sure that my son gets all his daily obligations done every day often led to confrontations. Not always because he didn’t like doing them, but that he didn’t like being reminded to do them all the time. So, I typed up a list and put it on the front of the fridge. Instead of reminding him of everything he needs to do before school every morning; make your bed, brush your teeth, pack your lunch into your book bag, etc. I would just tell him go check the list. When he came home from school, I would tell him to go check the list again. Unpack and wash your lunch box, change and fold your school uniform, eat and do homework. It worked like a breeze. Instead of running him through a tiresome verbal question list several times a day, I’d just ask if everything on the list is done. That seemed to give him a sense of self control, something that he craved.
If we’re going out for the day, and I know it’s going to be cool, I’ll tell him, you might want to take a jacket. And if he’s lazy and says nah, I’ll be okay, I don’t argue. Ok, let’s go. But when we’re sitting in the bleachers and he’s cold, he isn’t going to get my jacket either. I don’t say I told you so because he doesn’t respond to that anyway. He’s actually very good at naturally accepting responsibility for his actions. If I’m lucky, he’ll snuggle up next to me to stay warm while we watch the game. But more likely, he’ll tell me that he’s going to go run around and do a few back flips so he can warm up.
My son likes to have choices. So when I want him to go and exercise, I know he’ll invariably ask me what kind of workout. I always give him a choice between two workouts, because he responds better when he knows he has a choice and some control in the matter. What I don’t tell him, is that the less difficult of the two workouts is the one I actually want him to do. 😛 (I hope he doesn’t read this!)
It’s a work in progress, but we only have the kids with us in the house for a few more short years before they set out on their own. I want them to be equipped when they go. Equipped to handle the challenges they will face. To have the courage to take on big things. I want them to stand up for themselves and their beliefs and convictions, to be able to excel in this life.
For those parents with a softer personality, a strong willed child may be a scary challenge. Trying to find the right balance is no small task, and there’s still work to be done. My son has a large personality, a bright sense of humour and can be quite cheeky at times. Allowing his giant personality to shine while making sure he remains within the bounds of courteous behaviour can sometimes be a challenge. Often, it requires an adjustment in his behaviour. But at this point, just an adjustment, not a complete overhaul.
And even though my daughter has become a gracious young woman, there are still things I hope to teach her. Just last week, my daughter expressed her frustration at how difficult and cheeky my son was being with me one particular morning. I told her; “It’s okay, when you were his age you were much more difficult than that, and look how fantastic you’ve turned out.” She looked ahead and became very quiet. Then she turned and said “I’m really sorry mom. That must’ve been very hard for you.”
I really really love my children! 😀
If you’re interested, there’s a really good article on parenting strong willed children by ahaparenting here.