Enriching Relationships for a Lifetime   with Dr. Gary Oliver

Question

My strong-willed 6-year-old is wearing me down. She has an opinion about everything and it is almost always the opposite of what I ask of her. I give her options about unimportant things, such as what she will wear to school, but I put my foot down when she refuses to wear her coat on a cold day. Nevertheless, she persists and we end up in a terrible battle of wills. How can I make her obey without breaking her spirit?

Answer

You’ve got to love the strong-willed, opinionated and persistent child and not just when they are asleep. They have the potential to become creative and influential people when they grow up. The challenge is to learn how to direct and manage that energy and creativity and not label it as a “problem to control” but as a “gift to cultivate.”

We encourage parents with challenging children to begin each day by taking just a few minutes to think about the uniqueness of this child that God has given them. Take a moment to give thanks for this child who was made in the image of God. Give thanks for her uniqueness, her smile, her laughter and the other “positive” God-given gifts. Also thank God that He will give you the wisdom and discernment you need that day to deal whatever needs and concerns may arise.

There are ways of parenting children when they are young that can make a difference throughout their developmental years. One of these relates to choices and helping them cultivate intrinsic motivation to make wise choices. When children are young we can (to a degree) control their behavior but as they get older and bigger and become more independent that becomes a greater challenge. Parents who rely on primarily on extrinsic motivation to manger their children’s behavior are creating headaches for themselves and for their children as they grow older. God didn’t call parents to merely control their children’s behavior. He wants us to help them cultivate a healthy Christ like attitude.

The story is told of a dad who wanted his son to sit down but the boy wouldn’t sit down. After several requests turned into demands the father finally yelled, “If you don’t sit down I’m going to give you a whipping you’ll never forget.” As the boy finally sat down the father folded his arms with the sense of satisfaction that he had “won” this one. However, under his breath the boy whispered, “That’s okay dad. I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m standing up on the inside.” The dad had controlled his son’s short-term behavior but did nothing about his long-term attitude.

In our experience with the “coat on a cold day” scenario we decided this was not a battle we needed to fight. When one of our boys didn’t want to wear a jacket we knew that this was a potentially great opportunity for them to learn some intrinsic motivation. Over time, when they don’t wear jackets they learn that they will become cold and uncomfortable and may get sick and have to stay home and miss going out to dinner with the family or some other enjoyable social event. Children don’t primarily get sick from being cold—they get sick from germs.

You may have a different conviction about this issue but the principle is that wise parents look for every opportunity possible to lovingly allow their children to experiences the consequences of their decisions. Logical consequences are great teachers. We encourage parents to learn all they can about the uniqueness of their children. For many years we’ve recommended the book Strong-Willed Child or Dreamer by Spears and Braund to parents with children like your daughter. It is packed with wisdom and practical suggestions to help you in a wide variety of situations.

A child is most likely to be obedient when there is intrinsic motivation and there is more likely to be intrinsic motivation when there is a great relationship. Affirm what is good and healthy in your daughter whenever possible. Find ways to delight in the uniqueness of who God has made her to be. We’ve seen God use the challenging strong-willed child to bring out humility, patience and some other wonderful character strengths in moms and dads.


Carrie Oliver, M.A., is an educator and a marriage and family counselor. Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D. is executive director of The Center for Relationship Enrichment and Professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. The Olivers have co-authored Raising Sons . . . and Loving It! (Zondervan). Visit Carrie and Gary at www.liferelationships.com.

Related Q&A

We just moved to a new town. My daughter will be in 6th grade; my son will be in 9th grade. How can I help them adjust?

My son is extremely strong willed. He throws temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. I've read all the books and try to be consistent in discipline. What else can I do?

I’ve been a mom for 10 years, and I’ve tried very hard to emphasize to my children the difference between right and wrong. However, I find myself getting discouraged because while they seem to listen to me I don’t see a lot of change in their behavior. How can I help my kids become doers and not just hearers?

As I was dropping off some clean laundry in my son’s room recently, I found a package of condoms on the floor. What’s the best way to address this with him?

Our 12-year-old son loves to sit and watch TV or play on the computer. He doesn't like sports, but we would like to help him find a productive, active hobby. How do we go about this when he's almost a teen?

My 9-year-old daughter is a great girl who's a lot of fun to be around. Her only fault is keeping her room clean. She likes to look nice when we go out, but when we get home, she just throws her stuff on the floor. I'd really like her to keep her room neat and to learn to organize. Is this a battle worth fighting, or should we just let it go and close the door?

I am a Christian, but my husband is not. We don’t see eye to eye about parenting issues, which makes it difficult to be a team in raising our 6-year-old son. My husband also displays behavior around our son that I disagree with. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he doesn’t see a problem. How can I raise my son to be a godly young man in spite of all this?

I often overhear my two daughters criticizing other people. I think they're picking it up from other kids at school, but I want them to see the positive instead of the negative in other people. Any suggestions?

Our 9-year-old has picked up a habit of speaking to us and to her younger brother in a sarcastic, disrespectful manner. Her favorite phrase lately is "whatever." What's the best way to handle this?

I don't approve of some of my teen's music. What's the best way to approach this -- do I forbid it or ignore it or what?

My son just won't keep his room clean. Is this a battle worth fighting? Should I just close the door?

My husband and I were married six years before we had children, and while we are different in many ways (he's way laid back; I'm driven and detail-oriented), we were able to work through most of that conflict with humor. Now that our son is 2, though, it seems we disagree about everything — from the little things (whether he should eat ice cream for breakfast) to the big things (like making sure he stays on a schedule). I don't want to spend the rest of our lives fighting — how can we get on the same parenting page?

My 11-year-old son tends to blame others or circumstances whenever he is caught in misbehavior, embarrassed because he didn’t do something right, or just feeling inadequate. How can I teach him to own up to his mistakes and take responsibility for them?

My 15-year-old daughter jealously guards her privacy and I want to respect that. At the same time, I feel the need to know what she is up to. Is there a way to do both?

My strong-willed 6-year-old is wearing me down. She has an opinion about everything and it is almost always the opposite of what I ask of her. I give her options about unimportant things, such as what she will wear to school, but I put my foot down when she refuses to wear her coat on a cold day. Nevertheless, she persists and we end up in a terrible battle of wills. How can I make her obey without breaking her spirit?

Nobody warned me how tough it would be to be a parent to young adults. My one concern is with my eldest. Right now he's just working one part-time job, when previously he's had two jobs plus college. It's very hard to see him sitting around all day playing video games when the Lord has gifted him with so many talents. To see him not contributing is SO hard. What can a Mom do?

In the past year I have read several books on parenting. Each was written from a sound Biblical perspective with helpful suggestions on how to parent more effectively. I love each one of my children and want to be the best mother I can be but at times the task seems overwhelming and I am not sure where to start. Do you have any suggestions?

My husband and I both work full-time jobs that keep us away from our kids more than we’d like. When we do have time together it seems like most of it is focused on taking care of problems that have arisen between them or at school. Sometimes I think that our focus on discipline issues distract us from other things.

©2012 The Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University
2000 West University Street, Siloam Springs, AR 72761 (479) 524-7105 CRE@jbu.edu