An Open Letter to the Parent of a Strong-Willed Child

This article is part of the Open Letters series.

Dear weary parent,

Few things are as burdensome to a parent than a pattern of a small child’s growing reluctance to cooperate with you. Such ache can reflect loving concern for the child. My heart goes out to you in this difficulty.

I’ve heard parents say things like, “I feel like I’ve exhausted all my options. No approach seems to work. I’ve tried praying with him. I’ve tried appealing to his conscience. I’ve tried time-outs, and various consequences. . . and it just seems like things don’t get better, but worse. I’m very weary and discouraged. And weary. Did I mention weary?”

Consider these six things:

First, God himself faces strong-willed children all the time in his own family. All we, like strong-willed sheep, have gone astray.

Let us be careful about singling out the strong-willed child as though his will is more corrupt than ours. The will is strong in everyone, not only in “strong-willed” youngsters. We all want our way. Our children are cut from the same fabric as we. We are all born sinners, including your young child.

And let us be careful to discern. On one hand, dogged determination can be good and very useful in overcoming obstacles later in life. Strong-willed children may have leadership potential. On the other hand, stubborn defiance is bad. Distinguish! There is a difference between precocious and obnoxious. Is the child amazingly focused, or is he overbearing, defiant, rude, pushy, and belligerently demanding?

Second, before addressing the child’s persistence, it is helpful if we awaken to our own stubbornness. Our own will can refuse to take decisive action for the sake of our child. We can persistently and foolishly make excuses (e.g., “he’s just tired,” “he’s just hungry right now,” “he’s going through a phase.” All those things may be true about him, but it’s not helpful to conceal the fact that he is also being naughty). Some parents might justify the status quo (e.g., calling the child “strong-willed” as though it’s just the way he is and there is no hope of changing his behavior, thereby diverting attention from our own parental failure to decisively enforce expectations each and every time there is belligerence). Perhaps as parents we are blindly strong-willed about our refusal to be seen as firm, refusing to get up out of our chairs and take action, refusing to correct our child in public for fear of making a scene (when he’s already making a scene).

This is where we as parents can make a strategic difference, for the sooner Peter discovers that his defiant choices will result in swift and certain unsavory consequences to him, the better off he will be. It is the loving parent’s role to deliver those swift and certain consequences with consistency. It’s not because he is strong-willed, and we aren’t. We are strong-willed too. Wise and loving parents fasten their resolve on out-willing their young children. Tenderly but firmly outlast him when he is belligerent.

Third, ask if perhaps our love is a bit misdirected. It can be easy to care more about a child’s physical and emotional comfort in the moment, than his character development in the long run. Character development almost always costs something in terms of emotional and/or physical discomfort.

I have observed parents consider their child “strong-willed” primarily because he cares more about his desire than they care about his character development. They allow their desire for his development to take a back seat to his demands. This penalizes the child, the parent, and society.

Fourth, it is essential to look down the road. The child who gets away with refusing the parental commands at age six (e.g., hang up your jacket, get your pajamas on) will disregard much more serious parental commands at age sixteen (e.g., don’t have sex with your girlfriend). The way to enjoy cooperation later is to gain it now.

Fifth, follow through on the directions you give him. I know it can be exhausting, but God has a tailor-made enabling grace for you. Ask him for it. And persist. Yes, these situations can certainly feel overwhelmingly complex, and we so earnestly desire change in our children. Because we love them, and because we won’t see the results from correction if we don’t follow through, it is crucial that your yes mean yes, your no mean no, your come here mean come here.

True, squashing rebellious behavior and eliminating a rebellious heart are not the same thing. But the heart of the child is not served if the parent loses heart. Persevere.

Sixth, pray. Thank God for your child, for providing you the opportunity that his strong will is for your own sanctification. Thank Him that he has given you this season during which you are physically larger than the child. And ask for behavioral and attitudinal breakthroughs. God can bring breakthroughs that no amount of parental engineering can achieve. The heart of the child can be turned by God in ways that we can only marvel. While we can apply “best practices,” good parenting is fundamentally and primarily a matter God-given enabling grace.

Let me pray for you right now.

Our Father–Father! Your dear child, this parent struggling with a strong-willed child of her own, cares deeply for the child. And you know her desire to serve him and his development. She longs for him to behold Jesus and become like him, admiring Jesus greatly and loving him deeply. So, please grant a complete sufficiency of grace for today, enablement for the next step. Give her the resolve she will need, the confidence she will need, the love for her son’s future that she will need. Give her your spirit. And work wonders in her small child. We love that child. Rescue that child from himself and from stubbornness, and capture his will. Yes. Help us all in just the right ways. In the name of your obedient Son who was both determined and yielded. Amen.

Your friend,
Sam



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