Vintage Parenting 101: Help With Parenting A Strong-Willed Child

As a part of my efforts to increase the accessibility of my website, I am re-posting articles from my old Parenting 101 page as stand-alone blog posts on the main site.  And WOW – does this one take me back!!!

January 30, 2007

“Help with Parenting a Strong-Willed Child”

My basic premise is that this has become such a common problem because we, as parents, have been duped into thinking that our top priorities in raising our children should be helping build their self-esteem and making sure they like us and enjoy us. A “strong-willed child” is almost always a normal child that is insisting on being the authority in his/her own life, because the parents have not firmly established that position of authority themselves. All of us are born with a desire to be in control of our own lives. It’s just that it takes a few years (say, 18 or so) before we are smart enough or experienced enough to effectively handle the driver’s seat of our lives on our own.

This is not to say that parents should try to control their children for 18 years, then cut them loose. You can’t control your children. However, you can be the authority in their lives, and you can control your leadership of the relationship with them. By being the authoritative leader in the home, you are able to train and guide your children on the best path for life. If you are driven by a desire to “get along” with your child, build your child’s self-esteem, or for your child to like you, you will effectively place your child in charge of your home. Trust me, this is disastrous for everyone. But you can turn this ship around with the right leadership. Join me in a personal example of how the “strong-willed child” pattern can be fairly quickly and effectively ended. For the last six months or so, my son (who turned three during this time) had been going to bed later and later, while giving us more and more difficulty in the process. That has now changed, and bedtime is a fairly quick and pleasant time in our home. Not always wrinkle free, but typically quick and pleasant. Please do not read into this story that all is well because my son has turned three and grown out of the “terrible twos.” Between the two of us, I’ve done the most growing up during the last six months. It has been mine and my wife’s bold assertion of our authority that has turned the ship around, not my son’s birthday. Let me give you a contrast of the old and new snapshots:

3 months ago

8:00 pm – Son is watching something on TV, typically a favorite DVD. I’m beginning to think about how nice it would be if he were in bed, and my wife and I could enjoy the rest of the evening together without a two year old to contend with. But, I’m not ready to fight that battle, so I sit passively and watch (for the hundredth time) the unfolding drama of Lightning McQueen’s unprecedented quest for the Piston Cup.

8:30 pm – McQueen has learned his lesson, forfeited the Piston Cup, and everyone knows he’s the real champ – Kachow! At this point I would really like to put my son to bed, so I turn off the TV. He has a meltdown, I plead with him for five or ten seconds to settle down and come with me to brush his teeth. He clearly communicates his displeasure with my plan, and how important it is to him to watch Diego save the baby whale that is in trouble. I roll my eyes, make some wisecrack, and obediently turn on the DVD of his choice for him.

9:00 pm – OK, seriously, it’s time for bed. The kid is tired. His mother and I could use some time for adult conversation and connection. And I’m really tired of watching his cartoons all night. I turn off the TV and suffer through my son’s five minute meltdown as a result. The only thing that stops the “Dad Turned Off the TV” meltdown is the beginning of the “Dad is Trying to Make Me Brush My Teeth” meltdown. This one is worse than the preceding one. I try to explain to him how this is important and good for him, and to reason with him to calm down. (Keep in mind my son is two years old at this point!) He doesn’t calm down. Neither do I.

9:30 pm – I somehow manage to get him into the bathroom, where I brush his teeth for him in a not so gentle manner. I’m still trying to reason with him and help him see the error of his ways over the last hour. Strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to experience any great intellectual revelation!

9:45 pm – We’re in his bedroom – aka “Toys R Us after a tornado.” I wrestle him into bed and turn off the light. At this point, his strategy changes (very effectively, I might add). He can’t delay going to bed, but he can delay going to sleep. Now he becomes the adorable little boy who just needs his Daddy to cuddle with him. He plays this for ten to fifteen minutes, until I can finally bear to leave the room and close the door despite his desperate pleas for one more “big hug.”

10:00 pm – My son is finally in bed behind closed door, and it’s time for meaningful connection with my wife. Yeah, right! We’re both so worn out from this ordeal that we have only the energy to veg together for an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond on DVD, then crash for the night.

1 month ago – a transition period that took about 2 weeks

8:30 pm – It’s time for bed. I turn off the TV as my son pulls his meltdown stunt. I don’t bother trying to reason with him. I tell him I would probably be upset about this if I were in his shoes, but that’s just the way it’s going to be.

8:40 pm – Despite his verbal and non-verbal protests, I get his teeth brushed. This time it’s a little more gently, and I tell him it’s getting to be time he learned to brush his own teeth. No revelations yet on his end, but the teeth get brushed and we’re headed for bed.

8:45 pm – My wife joins the two of us in his bedroom for a reading from his toddler Bible story book. He plays around his Thomas Train table (there is actually some room to walk around it, now) and eventually sits in my lap as I finish the story.

9:00 pm – We turn off the light, and my wife and I say a brief prayer with our son. She heads to the living room, and I stay for a few minutes of bedtime bonding with him.

9:05 pm – I tell my son I’m giving him the last kiss and the last big hug, and walk out the door, closing it behind me. He uses his best desperate child in need of affection voice to coax me back in. I open the door, tell him I love him, it’s time for bed, I know he can be brave, and I’ll see him in the morning. He doesn’t like it, but he’s still in bed, and I’m out in grown-up land in the hallway headed toward my living room. Now I’m ready for some conversation with my wife, an episode or two of Raymond, and then…bedtime.

Last Night

8:25 pm – I let my son know bedtime is coming in a few minutes. I instruct him to pick up the remaining toys in the living room as Diego saves that poor helpless whale again. He picks up the toys without much difficulty, and I tell him how proud I am of the big boy he is becoming.

8:30 pm – The TV goes off. He protests momentarily, but as I head down the hall and tell him to come with me to brush his teeth, he quickly says OK (kinda pitiful like) and follows his Daddy.

8:33 pm – His teeth are brushed, after I’ve given him an opportunity to try it for himself.

8:35 pm – He has selected two Thomas trains to join him in my lap as I read him a Bible story with my wife.

8:40 pm – Prayer time together and lights out.

8:45 pm – After sharing a kiss, a hug, and some fatherly words of encouragement for my three year old, I say goodnight to my son (and Percy and Toby – his train companions for the night) and go on about the rest of my evening. Man, there’s a lot of evening left!

Overcoming the “strong-willed child” syndrome is about parents being in charge. It’s like Morpheus told Neo in The Matrix, “Don’t think you are…KNOW you are!”

For more help in this great challenge, I’ll be glad to work with you personally. Email me at or call my office for an appointment – 225-333-1582.

Also, I highly recommend “Parenting the Strong-Willed Child (DVD)” by John Rosemond (Rosemond has a number of great resources) and “ScreamFree Parenting” by Hal Runkel.

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