Once, when my son was three years old, I took him to an indoor bounce house park. An hour of jumping and sliding and bouncing didn’t tire him out the way I’d hoped, though. It only made him ready for another hour. Unfortunately, the “open bounce” time had ended and all the other three-year-olds were dutifully drinking from their water bottles and pulling on their sneakers. In the meantime, my son was flat-out refusing to leave.
He had a look on his face that I’d seen many times before. Dude didn’t want to go, so dude wasn’t going to go. The more I tried to reason with him, the more resolute he became that he was not, in fact, done jumping. As he tried to worm his way back into the jumping area, a disenchanted employee snapped, “You really need to get control of your son.”
OK, lady, sure. Why don’t you give it a try?
He’s been strong-willed since the day he was born, a quality that is both admirable and hard to parent. By age four, his ability to negotiate for what he wanted was downright impressive. I have always said that I could very clearly see how he could grow up to be a lawyer or a CEO.
As it turns out, I could be right. This study, which tracked kids for 40 years, from age 12 to age 52, concluded that certain characteristics in childhood were a predictor of future occupational success:
One surprising finding was that rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority was the best non-cognitive predictor of higher income after accounting for the influence of IQ, parental SES (socioeconomic status), and educational attainment.
So, that stubbornness pays off later. Literally. Instead of trying to break their strong will, we can learn how to embrace it.
Turn it into a positive
When my son was little, I read the book “Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.” That book taught me how to reframe what I had viewed as “stubbornness” into “tenacity.” While stubbornness has a negative connotation, tenacity is something to be valued and is a leadership quality we are often drawn to as adults. Tenacity is something we want to foster in kids, even if it first presents as a three-year-old who has decided they will not be leaving the bounce house park, thankyouverymuch.
Strong-willed kids often also look like perfectionists. But as psychologist and author Dr. Laura Markham writes at Aha! Parenting, they really crave “mastery.”
Let her take charge of as many of her own activities as possible. Don’t nag at her to brush her teeth; ask “What else do you need to do before we leave?” If she looks blank, tick off the short list: “Every morning we eat, brush teeth, use the toilet, and pack the backpack. I saw you pack your backpack, that’s terrific! Now, what do you still need to do before we leave?” Kids who feel more independent and in charge of themselves will have less need to be oppositional. Not to mention, they take responsibility early.
Ditch the power struggles
If you find yourself simply wanting to win, you’ve been sucked into a power struggle. Tenacious kids need to feel heard, so listen to them. They need to feel understood, so seek out their point of view. And they need to feel in control, so give them choices when you can. Markham says that support, rather than force, is often the way to get a strong-willed child to fall in line:
There is no amount of force in the world that can get a truly strong-willed person to acquiesce. That just increases their resistance, because their integrity won’t let them back down just because they’re being threatened.
But if you give them enough support, and they feel enough connection, strong-willed kids will usually agree to do what you want, instead of what they want. Kids cooperate because there’s something they want more than getting their way in the moment—they want that warm relationship with us.
None of this means that your strong-willed child should run the show — of course they need limits. But setting an example of mutual respect and empathy can help curb their natural tendency toward rebellion and set them up for that high-powered career in their future.