My second son’s birth was premature by two months. He weighed 3lbs. 4oz. and remained in the hospital until he had gained weight to 5lbs. My doctor reassured me that he would do just fine, as he was a fighter. While I waited for him to come home, I researched premature births and their effects on children and discovered that “preemies” have a tendency towards ADHD. Generally, my son’s developmental stages were slightly delayed, but by age 5 he had caught up to his peers.
I began to notice defiant, strong-willed behavior as he approached the “terrible twos”. He was much more difficult to manage than his older brother, and much more difficult than my friends’ children. He challenged me every step of the way. Most days I would fall into bed at the end of the day, exhausted and down on myself for being the “wicked witch of the west” with my children. I was a stay-at-home mom and wanted to be the best mom possible but often felt like a failure.
In those days, fortunately, I found an expert on exactly what I was dealing with. I discovered books and broadcasts by a doctor named James Dobson. He described these unique individuals this way: “Just as surely as some children are naturally compliant… there are others who seem to be looking for a fight upon exit from the womb. Such children come into the world smoking a cigar and barking orders in the delivery room…” However, he also writes, “ It is my firm conviction that the strong-willed child usually possesses more creative potential and strength of character than his compliant siblings, provided his parents can help him channel his impulses and gain control of his rampaging will”.
Dr. Dobson, in his book The Strong-Willed Child, wrote about the importance of shaping, and never breaking the child’s will. He suggested that when a child behaves in ways that are disrespectful, his motive is to verify the stability of the boundaries that have been set up. He is looking for leadership that holds firm and is confident. His greatest security is found in a structured environment where the rights of other people and his own are protected by definite boundaries.
So how is “shaping the will” accomplished?
First: Define the Boundaries Before They Are Enforced
Establish reasonable expectations and boundaries in advance so that the child knows what is and what is not acceptable behavior before he is held responsible for the rules. Ask the child to explain to you what the boundary is, so that you know they clearly understand.
Second: When Defiantly Challenged, Respond with Confident Decisiveness
Most children will assault the authority of their elders and challenge their right to lead. A little child will consider his parents’ wishes and defiantly chose to disobey. It is extremely important for the adult to win this challenge decisively and confidently. An example was with my son’s afternoon “nap”. I had established a rule that after lunch both sons would spend an hour in their bedrooms with the door closed. They could read or play quietly, but they were not to come out until I opened their door. My eldest son complied, happily went to his room, and later I would often find him fast asleep. My youngest son believed it was in his power to renegotiate the terms of this rule every single day. He used all of the renegotiating skills at his disposal at the time. He shouted, “NO”, he screamed, he yelled, he sat on the floor and grabbed onto stationary objects, he kicked, he stretched out his arms to prevent passing through the doorway, and once inside, he pounded on the door. This battle went on each day for months. When he finally stopped fighting me and there was peace with this issue, we could move on to the next issue.
Third: Distinguish between Willful Defiance and Childish Irresponsibility
Forgetting to put away toys or forgetting to feed the dog are behaviors typical of childhood and should be handled with patience. Be gentle as you teach the child to do better. Continued failure to respond to instruction, however, requires appropriate consequences that fit the situation i.e. paying for an items that has been abused, or being deprived of its use for a time.
Fourth: Reassure and Teach After the Confrontation is Over
After a time of conflict, the child may want to be hugged and reassured. This may be a good time to speak words of love and encouragement to the child and to talk about what happened and why.
Fifth: Avoid Impossible Demands
Ensure that the child is fully capable of delivering what is expected and required.
Sixth: Let Love Be Your Guide
A healthy relationship is characterized by genuine love and affection, even though parental errors are inevitable.
Dr. Dobson suggests that often the strong-willed child ends up in leadership as an adult. This has been very true of my son. He is now 32 years of age and is currently successfully managing a business. He has had several jobs in the past where he soon rose in the ranks as leader over others. I am grateful that in spite of our rough beginnings as mother and son, our relationship is strong and healthy. While he was growing up, I would often say that he would make us proud one day, and he certainly has!!
In summation, Dr. Dobson wrote,
1. You are not to blame for the temperament with which your child was born. He is simply a tough kid to handle and your task is to rise to the challenge.
2. He is in greater danger because of his inclination to test the limits and scale the walls. Your utmost diligence and wisdom will be required to deal with him.
3. If you fail to understand his lust for power and independence, you can exhaust your resources and bog down in guilt. It will benefit no one.
4. If it is not already too late, take charge of your babies. Hold tight to the reins of authority in the early days, and build an attitude of respect during your brief window of opportunity.
5. Stay on your child’s team, even when it appears to be a losing team. You’ll have the rest of your life to enjoy mutual fellowship.
6. Give him time to find himself, even if he appears not to be searching.
7. Hold your child before the Lord throughout their years. The God who made your child will hear your petitions. He has promised to do so. After all, He loves them more than you do.
Books referenced are written by Dr. James Dobson
The Strong-Willed Child
Dare to Discipline
Parenting Isn’t for Cowards