Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Loving Discipline

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 primarily on extrinsic motivation to manage 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 I’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.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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