Raising a Strong Willed Child (long)

Describing the beauty of a strong willed child is not easy. Most people look at the seemingly random acts of stubbornness and immediately label the child as unruly, undisciplined, and selfish. Many would look at the child and make a list of all the parenting mistakes that allowed such a “rebellious” spirit to develop in the first place.

For those of you who have experienced a strong willed child, you know that their spirit didn’t develop over time. It is innate. They are born with it. That spirit is a part of who they are. It is somehow mixed up in their DNA and can be seen seeping out to effect every thing in their life.

I remember my two year old who couldn’t be persuaded, taught, threatened, or bribed to say, “Yes Ma’am.” If she didn’t feel like saying it, the words did not come out of her mouth. As a good southern girl, I was horrified. Surely, my family would see that I was a huge failure at this parenting thing. If my grandparents heard her speak so disrespectfully, they may have disowned us all.

I was told that I needed to win the battles with my children, but no one told me that a toddler would refuse to eat anything for three whole days just because you asked her to try a food she didn’t want. No, I didn’t give in, but I wanted to.

The flip-side to this wonderful personality trait, is that I didn’t have to potty train this child. Oh, I tried but of course she refused. This wasn’t my first child and I knew enough not to push, but nothing worked with her. The day I gave up, she walked up to the potty, used it, and never looked back. She had just turned two.

Another wonderful trait of strong willed children is their understanding of right and wrong. They are able to see truth and feel very strongly that wrongs should be dealt with immediately. Once, while we were enjoying a family dinner. I asked one of the girls to take their elbows off the table. The next thing we knew, our little “law enforcer” (she was 3 at the time) was out of her seat and walking around the table. She headed straight to the offender (with elbows still on the table) and punched her in the stomach. Afterwards, she quietly walked back to her seat and continued eating as if nothing had happened. Shocked by this behavior, David asked her why she had hit her sister. Her reply, “She didn’t obey you. You told her to take her elbows off the table and she didn’t listen.”

Unfortunately, acknowledging your mistakes is not something that these children do easily. Most of us struggle with owning up to our mistakes. But believe me when I tell you that it is even harder, nearly impossible, for a truly strong-willed child to admit wrong at the time the wrong is committed and brought to light. She once got angry because someone drank her juice and left her an empty cup. I had just watched her finish the juice and she had a thick purple mustache to prove it. She refused to listen. She was sure that she didn’t even get a sip of juice. I sent her to the bathroom to look at her self in the mirror. Upon her return, she crossed her arms, and said through clenched teeth, “I still don’t think I drank it.” Since then, anytime a family member holds to a false idea in the face of obvious evidence, someone chimes in with, “Yeah, and there’s no grape juice on your lip, either.”

Believe it or not, this one, very strong child, demonstrates a true contrite heart more often than anyone else in our home. I know this seems contrary to what I just said, but it is part of the beauty of how God made her. When given time and when she is removed from the conflict, her sense of right and wrong kicks in. She is convicted of her strong speech and actions. And the Holy Spirit, at work in her, prompts her to make amends.

It is very difficult to teach a child that their personality (and spirit) is a gift from God when they constantly hear others label them as stubborn or troublemakers. Standing firm isn’t considered a worthy trait in children. Adults like children who respond politely and don’t challenge what they say. It is who we are. It is who I used to be, before I was blessed with a child who has continually challenged me. Sure, we want our children to not waver on important issues later on in life, but how are they supposed to learn that skill without exercising it (albeit sometimes in misguided ways) and learning when to stand immovable?

Around the age of ten, my beautiful girl asked me to explain the difference between being stubborn and being strong willed. We’ve had many heart to heart talks about these subjects. I realize that for every good and perfect gift that our Father gives, Satan has a counterfeit gift readily available. My daughter is learning that she has to choose which gift she wants in her life. Pharaoh, of Moses’ day, is the poster child for stubborn hearts. The heart that says, “No matter what, I will do things my way.” Choosing the counterfeit over the real thing will always lead to heartache and destruction.

The behavioral problems we saw in our toddlers are the same, but amplified, with puberty. For a strong willed child, that means louder demands, stronger threats, prolonged anger, and “law enforcement” backed by physical strength. It also means a more intimate knowledge of the workings of the Holy Spirit in her heart. This last part is huge. Without her seeing that God is doing a work in her life, she would give in to the anger more easily and more often. Without the knowledge that God created her, just as she is, with a unique purpose, I am confident that she wouldn’t have thought it possible to overcome her desire for power over everything and everyone in her life.

There are many times when I have felt like a failure as a mom. If your child yells at you and refuses to obey, doesn’t that equate failure? For me, it used to. I used to believe that my success or failure as a mom was based on the good behavior of my children. But, my goal as a mom is not to raise well-behaved kids. That is just a bonus that comes as my children learn to hear and obey the voice of their Heavenly Father.

For my strong willed girl, I want her to learn to surrender her will to her Heavenly Father out of love for Him. I want her to know the blessing of submitting to others in order to encourage the body of Christ. I also want her to know how to stand firm, unwavering, and able to fight sin in her own life and the evils she may face in the future. I want her to know that no one is perfect and admitting wrong builds relationships and makes her approachable.

There are still several years left for this girl to grow and learn before she leaves the safety of our home. No doubt there will be more hard parenting days in the future as she continues to grow. For myself, I predict many days given to prayer just so I can have wisdom to parent this girl. Please don’t misunderstand, most of the time, she is wonderful and loving and even says, “Yes ma’am.” It is just when her will rears its head and she allows it to rule (no matter what) that there are problems. Even with the struggle, I am proud of who she is right now and I am excited about the future.

For all of you moms with strong willed children, may you be blessed by the growth they will bring to your life. Yes, I grew. First in despair (when puberty hit) and then, when I recognized the beautiful gift I had been given, I began to grow in grace and love.

And, for all of you have shaken your head in disgust as you watch another’s child (maybe mine) as they stubbornly refuse to obey, show compassion. Maybe that mom is doing all the right things and it is just one of those moments when the child’s will takes over.

~ Regina

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