As if they were a character from the novel Black Beauty, some parents seem to discuss their children as if they were unruly horses in need of a serious, Victorian-era “breaking.” Just like horses, strong-willed children can be difficult to raise properly. But with care and effort, not only can you successfully raise your child (or horse), you can also prepare them for a successful run through their teenage years, young adulthood, on into a successful life as an adult.
So how can you avoid the “power struggles” you might find yourself fighting with your strong-willed child?
Here are some steps to help you positively parent your strong-willed child.
- Set up a schedule and outline household chores and activities on a chart. Strong-willed children like to feel in control. By setting up a schedule, and explicitly laying out the necessary chores in writing, you empower your child to plan their own day around the needs of the family. Instead of enforcing tasks on your child, you invite your child to integrate those tasks into their day, and satisfy their need for self-agency.
- Set up boundaries, not rules. Rules tend to follow a pattern of “If this, then that” (with “that” often being an unhappy effect). For the strong-willed child, however, rules are meant to be bent! Knowing this, provide your child with boundaries they are not allowed to cross, while allowing the child to “fill in the blanks.” Instead of “no running in the store” (a rule), try “don’t be rude to others” followed with “running in the store is rude because it causes trouble for others.” By allowing your child to make their own connection, you’ve given the child the ability to form their own personal rules while getting the same outcome!
- Give your child choices. Often times it’s the end result, not the exact execution, which is important. Let your child choose between sweaters. Negotiate with your child on scheduling and activities. This doesn’t mean you need to abdicate all authority to your child! Even in cases where there is an inflexible need (say, you need to go to the store) you can usually find a choice you can provide to your child which gives them the flexibility they desire. Just avoid Hobson’s Choices; children are smart enough to see through those (often times with a clarity beyond that of most adults) and these types of “decisions” simply breed contempt.
- Allow for experimentation. Strong-willed children prefer to learn from experience. Unless the situation is dangerous, it’s usually best to allow your child to learn for themselves, even if a little bit of advice could have avoided the situation for other children. Strong-willed children would just refuse to accept the advice in addition to not learning from the experience! Even here, though, choices can be used to avoid trouble. If it’s cold outside and your child insists on wearing shorts, instead of telling them all the reasons why they shouldn’t, why not allow them to wear shorts on the agreement that they take with them a pair of pants? Then, when the lesson is learned, you can solve the problem for them easily, with minimal fuss.
The features that make parenting a strong-willed child difficult are the very features the child will eventually use to gain confidence in the future. The self-directed, focused, passionate nature of these children serve them throughout life: they can better avoid peer pressure and tend to be goals oriented later in life. Attempting to “break the will” of your child, though, can have the very opposite effect. The very “breaking” which makes your child “easier to manage” also makes them easy prey for their peers and others later on in life.