Do You Have a Strong-Willed Child?

I do. Oh my, do I ever.

I often say that Ivy rewrote the book on parenting. She’s number five, so I should pretty much know what I’m doing, right? Ha. Ha ha! Ha ha ha!!

Ivy is 3 years old. 3 has a reputation anyway, doesn’t it? Preschoolers can be tough. TOUGH I tell you! But Ivy has managed to take the requirements of parenting preschoolers to a level I’ve never experienced, in 12 years of parenting preschoolers. what worked with my first four children doesn’t work with Ivy. She doesn’t sleep like her siblings. She doesn’t react to punishment like her siblings. She very frequently cannot be coaxed, cajoled, persuaded or distracted. If she makes a decision to do something, (like, say, NOT go to sleep, or put her shoes on by herself or buckle her own car seat buckles) she is unrelenting, fiercely determined and completely affronted if you get anywhere near her with an alternative. Sometimes compromise works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Screaming is often involved. She has an iron will, a firm, unrelenting spirit and (lets be real) she is utterly and completely exhausting. Now, she is also out of this world fun, always entertaining and so very funny.

My favorite Ivy story lately is a perfect representation of her strong will working in her favor. Her baby dolls were upstairs in her bedroom. The lights were off, and as she looked up the stairs, she told me she was scared. She didn’t want to go upstairs by herself. Well, I was right in the middle of cooking dinner, had a baby on my hip and couldn’t walk upstairs with her. “Ivy,” I said, “You can do it. Just turn the light on in the hallway. You’ll be fine.” She walked back to the stairs, took a deep breath, and started up the stairs. The whole way, she sang: “I-veee, you can do it. I-veee, you can do it.” And she did. It only took  her a moment to muster up the courage to do something that was frightening. Similar scenarios are pretty common. She’s one tough cookie, and I LOVE her for it. But I’ve had to realize some important things about her personality in my quest to recognize those good qualities. I’ve had to accept that parenting strong-willed children is DIFFERENT. She is DIFFERENT.

I like to give my kids choices. I like to empower them to have control when it’s appropriate for them to have control. I like to teach them what is expected, what is good and right and true and then seek opportunities for them to make choices on their own, to learn and grow by their own experience. (All age appropriately, of course.) But my strong-willed daughter has little care for age appropriateness. Every day, every moment, she fights to be in control. Power struggles? Yeah. We’ve been around the block a few times with those. In my weakest mothering moments, I’ve felt tempted to break Ivy into submission. I will be in control. You will do what I say. You will answer/comply/stop right NOW. But over and over again, this sort of authoritative “Because I said so” approach just doesn’t work with Ivy. I’ve watched her eyes change as she’s made a decision, her little arms crossing across her chest. “Go ahead and make me,” her little attitude seems to say.

Now I’m not saying I think it’s okay for Ivy to stomp all over my authority as her Mama. But I am saying, because of her personality type, the getting there — to that place where we get along and make it through the day still smiling and loving each other at the end — has to be a different process.

ImageI’ve just read this book: You can’t Make me (But I Can Be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child, by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. I nodded through the first few pages. Yes, that’s my kid. Oh, yep. That’s my kid too. OH MY WORD the author has been in my house watching my daughter because THAT. IS. MY. KID. My favorite section of the book talks about how strong-willed children are wired. Tobias shares these three points:

1. Strong-willed children don’t have trouble with authority, but with how authority is communicated.

2. Strong-willed children don’t need to control you; they just can’t let you take all control away from them.

3. The quality of the relationships you have with strong-willed children determines the effectiveness of your parenting strategies.

These points gave me much to think about, particularly number 2. It was a process for me to realize that inherent in Ivy’s little personality is a desire to do things on her own, to feel in control. Funny, I really hate feeling out of control myself. If I recognize that, can I also recognize Ivy’s defiance not as a personal affront to ME and my requests as her Mom, but as an expression of herself, her desire to do things in her own way? It’s hard! I’m the Mom! I’m in charge! Well, yeah. But this little girl has a spirit in her that cannot be broken and if I can’t work with that, I have a feeling we will fight through her entire childhood.

Tobias goes on to outline suggestions for making it easier to communicate with strong-willed children, from toddler years, all the way through to teenagers, and adult children. Much of what she shared felt pretty intuitive to me, but I had many “ah-hah” moments where I thought, “Okay, I can do better with this one.”

I think the most important lesson of the book, with preschoolers in particular, is that we cannot take their defiance or misbehavior personally. We might say, “WHY are you doing this to me? Why are you making things so difficult? You’re going to make me late.” And on, and on. We make it about us. We think only about how their behavior affects US. This book reminded me to take a step back and recognize that Ivy, though in miniature form at the moment, has a personality and spirit that might very well be different than me. She has her own way of seeing things, her own way of experiencing the world. It’s up to me whether or not I make that a good thing or a bad thing.

I won’t lie. It is HARD WORK being her Mom. But I’m of the mind that every kid deserves to be championed, celebrated and encouraged. So I’ll take the hard. She’s totally worth it.

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7 thoughts on “Do You Have a Strong-Willed Child?

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh, Jenny! Our 3 year-olds could be twins! 🙂 And my first was so cool with “whatever Mom wants” (of course he threw fits… but it was rare enough we thought the “terrible twos” were fiction… no joke), that it has made this a huge slap in my Mommy face. 🙂 The funny thing is, the less I try to have it be “my way or the highway” the easier he is, the happier we all are, and the less I feel like spazing out myself.

    • jennyproctor says:

      Yes, Sarah! I’ve come to the same conclusion. If I keep myself from getting defensive, from feeling like I’m less of a Mom if I relent and just try and understand WHERE Ivy is coming from, life is a lot easier. That doesn’t mean she wins all the time. Because, you know, sometimes I really can’t let her sit in the middle of the grocery store isle, open a box of Goldfish and play Subway Surfer on my Iphone. But trying to keep her in perspective definitely helps. 🙂 Thanks for your comment! It also helps to know others are working through the same kinds of challenges.

  2. annieblarson says:

    I love how your write. You are able to put into words just what I am thinking. As a mother of 6 also, I relate to a lot of your challenges and love to hear your insight and just be reminded that we all go through similar things. I haven’t been let down by any books you have suggested and this one actually sounds great for a book club book.

    • jennyproctor says:

      Annie, thank you! I appreciate your comment so much. I think the book would be great for book club, particularly if your book club is full of Moms! I think we all know a strong-willed child if we don’t have one among our own kids, so I think the resulting discussion could be extremely beneficial. It helps so much to know that others know what you’re experiencing and can relate and help and encourage. Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Lynn says:

    Most of my children are grown or practically grown and they all had their own personalities but all but one I could relate to and I thought, parent well. One child was different; trying and not afraid to shame or make a scene if necessary to get her way and she really pushed my sanity to the brink. She has grown into a well behaved and beautiful 16 year old girl. I do want to encourage you that through many tears, prayer, and much time all things do pass.

    • jennyproctor says:

      Thank you Lynn! It helps to be encouraged by people that have lived through it already. I know it will all be worth it in the end, and I try and look for those qualities in my daughter that make me proud. She really is an amazing kid. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Okayest Mom says:

    My 3-year-old and I have had that exact same “but it’s dark up there” go-upstairs-with-me argument while I made dinner with (2) babies on my hips. I had to do a double-take to make sure I didn’t write this blog post….

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