Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

Is your child strong-willed by nature? Wondering how to mould him? ParentCircle brings you expert tips on this.

By Arundhati Swamy

Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi

How often have you heard your child say, “I will not do this,” when you request him to do something? Don’t let that get on your nerves. After all, your child is just strong-willed and you can certainly nurture him the right way. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘strong-willed’ as, 'determined to do what you want to do, even if other people advise you not to.' While at the outset it may sound negative, it all comes down to how your child chooses to channelise this behaviour of his. Take Nelson Mandela for example. He inherited his dad’s virtue of standing for what is right. Being rebellious from a young age, Mandela took it upon himself to fight apartheid, and he succeeded!

Strong-willed children have always been looked upon as non-compliant and disobedient. But, being strong-willed isn’t a bane. If you work on your child’s strong-willed behaviour, you can help him use it to his advantage - commanding great respect as a leader in the organisations he will work with in future. Hence, sealing the deal for his professional success. Like many things in life, strong-willed children have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Rewind to the past…

Before we move further, let’s take a look at how obedience was perceived in the past. Obedience was a prized virtue until two generations ago. It offered privileges, praise, acceptance and favouritism - not just in the family but in the school too. To gain the title of ‘the good child’ at home/school, one needed to be obedient, with no questions asked!

Such ‘obedience’ gave parents an irrevocable position of power and control, albeit from fear; justified only by the belief that they knew what was best for their children! Thus, independent thinkers, risk-takers, leaders and creative individuals were more of liabilities than assets. The few who dared to challenge this norm were labelled and branded as troublesome children.

Cut to the present…

This is the age of information, liberal attitudes and transformed mindsets – all offering exciting challenges and ample scope for innovation and discoveries. In such a scenario, can we afford to be passive participants, while we wait for some wise decision-maker to solve problems? Will we let opportunities disappear before we even realise that they have come and gone?

Those who made stunning discoveries in the bygone era were the emboldened ones. Imagine what can be achieved in a connected world where people, in real-time, can collaborate, deliberate, and share ideas across continents, fuelled by intuition and instinct, knowledge and open-mindedness. This is the present and future world that our children will grow into - where there is no place for merely being obedient.

So what do we do?

We have to redefine the term obedience in the present and future. We do not want to do away with obedience - not at all. But, can we transit from a mindset of blind, ‘passive obedience is good’ to ‘obedience built on trust is better’? This will make children believe us when we say, “Trust me, I know what’s good for you.” They will believe and learn to trust only when they understand and accept what we say.

Looking at obedience in different contexts

So let’s take a look at ‘obedience’ in two different contexts – ‘broken will’ and ‘trust’. First of all, we cannot choose the temperament of our child. What the child is born with is what we get. Genetic inheritance cannot be changed! What we can change, though, is how we understand the strong-willed child, the kind of environment we offer her, and our choice of responses to her behaviour. So we have two choices here.

  1. To perceive the child as being difficult, stubborn, obstinate, demanding and headstrong, and parent him with the goal of breaking his spirit
  2. To hope that the child, although difficult to manage in the present, holds great promise in the future and must be valued for her individuality, creativity, curiosity, perseverance and spirit; to build trust in the parent-child partnership

In the former, the parent uses unquestionable fearful authority which only aggravates and intensifies the child’s desire to be more aggressive. In case of this choice, the battle lines are drawn and conflict escalates.

In the latter, the journey is arduous. It helps a great deal when parents accept that the child has a particular temperament. It’s a tough job that requires parents to be resolute, stoic, and perseverant themselves. On parenting a strong-willed child, Dr James Dobson, PhD, in an article titled, The Strong-Willed Child, published in the website, Dr James Dobson’s family talk, has said, “You simply have to be tougher than he is, but do it without being angry and oppressive.”

Channelling your strong-willed child’s traits

While understanding the concept, one should remember that traits are predetermined behaviour patterns. We use them to negotiate our world. When we use them to benefit the self as well as other people, we will be perceived as being positive. And, when we use them to benefit only the self and no one else, we will be perceived as being negative. This can be understood better with the following examples:

  • If I use my trait of being strong-willed to get what I want, or to manipulate people and situations for personal gains without a care as to how it may impact other people, I will be judged as being arrogant, stubborn and selfish.
  • If I use my trait of being strong-willed to pursue a truth that will absolve innocent people, I will be judged as being fair, persistent, and brave for taking the risk.

So, in effect, help your child choose what he wants to achieve out of his strong-willed behaviour. The more your child uses this trait for mutual benefit, the better he is appreciated.

Strong-willed children, despite their ‘difficult’ behaviour in childhood, are naturally predisposed to meeting the needs of their future. They are self-motivated to raise the bar and rebellious enough to question the status quo.

They are also:

  • Curious enough to infuse creative thought
  • Adventurous enough to take brave risks
  • Persistent enough to achieve breakthroughs

Thus, the traits and temperament of the strong-willed child can be turned into enviable assets that will enable higher achievement and success in the future.

Let them free, within boundaries

Strong-willed children enjoy experiential learning, and, therefore travel the risky path. Deprived of it, they will go into a defiant mode in order to assert what they feel is right. So, establish your parental right to lead, guide and protect by offering such children a fair amount of freedom. Rules are their anathema. They make them feel offended, oppressed and stifled. So, have an open dialogue with your child and establish what is acceptable.

It’s not easy, but imperative. It’s a long haul. Each day can bring a new challenge for parents. The mantra is simple - De-stress and rejuvenate, over and over again.

The future

The good news is that strong-willed children can grow to become good leaders, innovative thinkers, and high energy individuals who will fit in well with high profile power jobs in the future. And, remember that parents can make it a foreseeable outcome by taking charge, using discretion, making the effort to understand, having loads of patience and possessing a never-say-die attitude.

So, cheers to the obedience that comes from a place of trust!


Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.