Advice for parenting a strong-willed child

WHEN HER SON WAS 4, Cynthia Tobias knew she was in trouble. Mike refused to pick up his toys one day, and Tobias threatened to give them all to other kids. “So give them to other kids!” Mike yelled. Parenting Strong Willed Child

Realizing that she had painted herself into a corner, Tobias did just that. But she also learned to stay out of corners with paintbrushes. In fact, she learned so much that she wrote a book, You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded), published by Waterbrook Press in 2012. Scouting talked with Tobias—who was a strong-willed child herself—about parenting strong-willed children and how these strategies apply to Scouts.

Scouting: Is strong will a good thing or a bad thing?

Cynthia Tobias: It’s a very positive trait. It can go sideways, which is the only way it gets to be a bad thing. You want your child to have a pretty good dose of strong will: not easily discouraged, not easily daunted, and not conquered by defeat. It’s just how it’s used. It’s a little challenging sometimes in its raw and early form to get it channeled and guided in the right direction.

Scouting: The first crucial truth you discuss in the book is that strong-willed children don’t have trouble with authority, only with how authority is communicated. Could you expand on that?

C.T.: When you come across like you’re the big boss and say, “This is how you’re going to do it, period, end of discussion,” you’re doomed in most cases. If you listen to me, and I feel like you understand what I’m saying and you’re taking me seriously, then I’m probably going to cooperate with you. In the end, I may even do it your way.

Scouting: That brings us to the second crucial truth: Parents need to share control but not authority. That seems like a fine distinction.

C.T.: It’s a little tricky sometimes, but it’s really critical. Don’t give way on the bottom line. Don’t compromise on standards or accountability. Just ask, “What do you think it’s going to take to motivate you to do this?” You’re not being a weak parent by saying, “Here’s the point. How are we going to get there?”

Scouting: Do strong-willed children want to control the situation or control their parents?

C.T.: As a small child, if I figure out how to push your buttons, it’s irresistible to me not to do it. It kind of worries me that I have that much power over you, but, gosh, it’s fun to use it. You don’t want to give your kids that kind of control over you by giving in to the anger and the screaming.

Scouting: Your third crucial truth is that the quality of the relationship determines how effective your parenting is. Talk about that.

C.T.: It’s all about relationship, about having a relationship that the strong-willed child cares about and wants to preserve. We’re going to be a lot more cooperative with you and a lot more ready to do the right thing when we know you believe in us and we know you value us. I think that makes all the difference in the world. My dad was a strong authority with me, but we had a very healthy relationship that I wanted to keep. I was willing to work with him and he was willing to back off a little, and we worked it out.

Scouting: A big part of strong relationships between adults is honesty. How does that relate to a parent’s relationship with a strong-willed child?

C.T.: Especially with the older strong-willed kids, your transparency is really valuable. There’s nothing wrong with saying to your teenage strong-willed child, “I need a do-over; I need a mulligan. I’m not going to apologize for what I’m asking you to do, but I think I might have to back off a little on how I just asked you to do it.”

Scouting: How can you offer a strong-willed child a do-over?

C.T.: If I do something outrageous and you say, “Nice try; I don’t think so,” and smile at me, then I have a little fire escape. You’ve provided a way for me to back down gracefully instead of pointing your bony finger at me and giving me no choice. I want to back down gracefully.

Scouting: Your book is about parenting strong-willed children, but wouldn’t most of the techniques work with more compliant kids as well?

C.T.: This works for every child, but it’s critical for the strong-willed child. My compliant child responds well to all these things, but if I don’t use those things, I can still get by sometimes. With my strong-willed child, it becomes critical.

Scouting: What message would you give to Scout leaders who work with other people’s strong-willed children?

C.T.: The adults who don’t give up on us will make all the difference for us and how we turn out and what we do with our strength of will. We’re going to change the world, one way or the other. The more you can help influence the direction we take, the more you can really affect the whole world.

1 Comment

  1. Ms Tobias’ ideas are somewhat similar to the concepts covered in Thomas Gordon’s book “Parent effectiveness training” ($10 at Walmart). He’s been studying this problem since 1950. I have used his ideas with kids and adults, they really work. I personally think Gordon had found the only ethical problem solving method around. With his method, you don’t have to look for a face-saving backdown, btw; it never comes up. All people are strong-willed when it comes to trying to change their behavior :-). Amazon reader comments here:

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