NOTE: This is the second article in the two-post series about Strong-Willed Children. Please read “10 Signs That You Have A Strong-Willed Child” for the first post of the series.
Admit it, having a strong-willed child is exhausting. The constant battles with everyday routines, their need to do things exactly the way want to do it and the barrage of “No”s thrown at you for each and everything, big and small, suck energy out of you faster than you can replenish with 6-7 hours of sleep and 3-4 cups of tea/coffee. You start wondering things like “What am I doing wrong?” “How come my parenting sucks so bad that I have absolutely no control over my kids?”.
The good news is your child’s temperament has got nothing to do with your parenting skills. They were “born this way” (Yes, Lady Gaga was right! Of course, if you start considering that perhaps you and/or your partner are themselves stubborn and passed on this trait to your children, well, you can pinpoint the culprit who is to be blamed for this 😉 But I am digressing here).
Once you have made peace with the fact that you do have a stubborn child, the question that arises next is how to win over your strong-willed child in a non-threatening way which avoids breaking his spirit in your quest for compliance? Well, here are 7 tricks that have worked for me and made my daily interactions with sonny much better and far less antagonistic. A word of caution, though – I am still learning and there are many days when we still butt heads despite all the tricks in my kitty.
1. Give them some autonomy over their lives
One of the main reasons for conflict with a strong-willed child is that they want complete control over how they function on a day-to-day basis. Well, giving them absolute power in this regard will lead to anarchy 😉 , of course, considering that they are still learning the ropes of moral conduct and good behavior in society and need your guidance, though they will vehemently deny it! Nonetheless, it is a good idea to give them autonomy over some of the decisions involving them. Be it whether they want an afternoon nap or not, whether they want to eat pancakes three weeks in a row or whether they want to wear their sports shoes (“Shopping shoes” as sonny likes to call them) inside the house, letting them have their way for some things (no matter how quirky) lets them know that their voice counts and that they are important. This reduces their need for “defying authority” tremendously.
The 50-50 Rule
I have observed that the 50-50 rule works quite well for me and sonny. On days when I let sonny have his way 50% of the times and I have my way 50% of the times works the best and are one of our better “no head-butting” days. I can stretch the ratio till 30-70 occasionally when I am feeling lucky (and ready for some conflicts and teachable moments!) but beyond it, our machinery simply breaks down!
But you may ask if we let our children have their way 50% of the times, what will happen if they are asking non-permissible stuff? Well, that’s where the second trick in my kitty comes into play.
2. Ask permission – don’t enforce laws, instead, make them together
One thing that must be remembered about strong-willed children is that they are not averse to adhering to rules and regulations. Rather, they want a say in them. So, if you try to enforce ‘x’ regulation in their life without consulting them, they will balk at it and not care whether that rule is for their good. Instead, if you discuss the rule with them and ask them if they thought it to be a good rule to follow, chances are (more often than not) they will agree to it and follow it religiously.
Recently, sonny went through yet another naming change. These days he answers to the name of “Mario” (yes, that crazy video game guy, Mario!). I am the “damsel in distress” Princess Peach and guess what hubby is? He is the “Nice Super Villain” (Thank god for the adjective “Nice”!). And since he is “Mario”, he decided to wear a cap and paint a thick black mustache above his upper lip. So far so good. But when it was time to go to school, he refused to let go of his cap or mustache. I almost had a showdown with him, before deciding to “talk it out”.
So instead of the usual “You have to leave your cap and wash off your mustache before going to school, because I am telling you to.”, I asked him whether he would consider leaving the cap home because it might get lost at school and also wash off his mustache because it’s not part of his school uniform. And his response was a very surprising “yes” and he summarized the rule perfectly “Cap and mustache only with home clothes, not with school clothes.” Now he abides by the rule religiously and puts on his cap and draws a mustache only after he is back from school! (And another interesting fact is: he has somehow convinced his classmates and teacher to call him “Mario”. I wonder how long before he convinces them to add a cap and mustache to the school uniform 😉 )
3. Pick your battles
Not all battles thrust on you are meant to be fought. You’ve every right to back-off once in a while. This is true not only in other spheres of your life but also in your everyday battles with your strong-willed child.
Spirited children love to test boundaries to see how far they can stretch your patience till you lose it. And it is very tempting to react (Believe me, I fall for such acts more often than I would like to admit!). But it is important to pick your battles carefully.
Newton’s third law – Every action has an equal and opposite reaction – applies very aptly to this. The more you try to convince them to do something, the more vehemently they will protest. So, ask yourself “Do I really need to engage in verbal combat over this with my child? Does it really matter?” before you respond. More often than not, the issue will resolve itself just because you could not be bothered to fight a duel.
Every morning, sonny whines “I don’t want to go to school” the moment I bring out his school uniform. On the days when I tell him that he must go, he invariably has a meltdown and protests forcefully. On the days when I just empathize with him and say “I know, no one wants to go to school.” and leave it at that, he just repeats his displeasure once or twice before giving up (He doesn’t really hate school, he just enjoys testing me!).
4. Give them the rationale behind your decisions
Children are way more reasonable than we give them credit for. Explain things to them and chances are they will understand and comply. Strong-willed children are no different in this regard. If you explain to them (of course in an age-appropriate way) why they have to wait for 10 minutes for their pancakes (because you have to mix flour, egg, milk etc. and cook them), why they should not stand near the gas burner (because it is hot and will burn your fingers) and why they should not watch too much TV (because too much staring the screen hurts your eyes and you have far less time to play), they will understand and agree (and remind you too, when you are not following the rules yourself!).
5. Stick to schedule for routine activities
If there is one thing that throws everything into a tizzy for strong-willed children is the lack of structure and visibility regarding what is to come next. So, it is very important to stick to a schedule for routine activities. This not only gives the strong-willed children a sense of control over their world but also empowers them to decide independently about their activities.
I used to have big power struggles with sonny over his homework time. But when I started to ask him to do his homework every evening at a set time, he got used to the routine (of course after initial few days of whining) and now even on days when he has no homework, he asks for it!
6. Let them make mistakes and learn from them
As I mentioned in my last post about strong-willed children, they learn by doing. This means, when it is safe to do so, you should let them experiment. Ask yourself “What is the worst-case scenario that could happen if I let him do it? Is it safe?” and if the answer is not something alarming, let him try it out. Maybe it will create some extra spills and messes for you to clean up when he insists on mixing the pancake batter, a mustache drawn with a permanent marker which will be hard for you to wash off at bath time or planets drawn all over his bedroom walls (which will come off only with another three coats of paint, if ever!), let him do it. And chances are once, he had his fill, he will be done for good…not because you stifled his creativity but because he is done experimenting and learning the lessons he set out to learn (and perhaps a few more too through the mistakes he makes on the way).
7. Change your perspective
When everything else fails, try to change your perspective a little and see the situation through their eyes. Sometimes, all they are trying to do is to learn and grow!
I used to occasionally have scuffles with sonny because of his planet obsession (Who wants to read the same 40 pages every day of a Space Encyclopedia? It’s very boring!) and would try to redirect him to other toys or books, which would invariably lead to a meltdown. But all it took was a change of perspective. Here I was trying to hide from my son when all he wanted from me was to “Read a book” when a lot of parents out there would love to have their children enjoy books as much as sonny does. Add to it his vast knowledge of planets (way more than what he is expected to know at 4 years), I don’t really should be fighting him over this!
So yeah, the major takeaway from this point? Once a while, when then their obstinacy and obsessive behavior starts getting to you, just try to change your perspective a little. And you will see that all this crazy behavior is just their way of learning about this world.
So, there you have it: 7 tricks to try on your strong-willed children. You can also check out this wonderful article on Aha! Parenting which gives you many more pointers about this topic. Which tips resonate with you the most? Don’t forget to share your thoughts.