What Dads Need to Know: How Is the Strong-Willed Child Wired?

Adapted from You Can’t Make Me by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

I’ve been writing and teaching about the strong-willed child (SWC) for more than twenty-five years. During that time I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of strong-willed people of all ages on six continents, in all walks of life. What you are about to read is a consensus among this diverse population of strong-willed individuals (including me) who agree on some basic fundamental truths about how strong-willed minds are wired.

Three crucial truths about how we think

1. It’s not authority we have trouble with; it’s how the authority is communicated.

Even some of the most openly rebellious strong-willed kids insist they don’t have trouble with authority. We SWCs wouldn’t respect our parents if they drew the line and moved it. We wouldn’t respect the government if there were laws, but no one enforced them. It’s not the issue of authority; it’s how the authority is communicated. What sets us off is your finger in our face as you tell us to “do it or else.” SWCs know you’re not really the “big boss”; we always have a choice whether to obey or take the consequences. If you use your authority in a way that suggests we don’t have a choice, there’s almost always going to be trouble.

We usually don’t respond well when you simply issue orders to be obeyed. We want to be treated with respect, and we respond best to a voice that’s calm and firm. If your authority is transmitted to us by shouting or with angry words and gestures, we tend to simply tune you out—and prepare for battle.

When I was growing up, my dad was the ultimate authority in our house. My SWC nature did not question him when he laid down the law. But you see, Dad intuitively knew a parenting technique that is critical for dealing with the SWC. If he said, “Stop now!” I just stopped. I didn’t question or argue. I knew my dad wouldn’t talk to me like that unless it was essential that I obeyed. And that could save my life if it stopped me from stepping in front of a speeding car. If he had talked to me with the same urgency and firmness all the time, I would have tuned him out and probably not done much of anything he asked.

Here’s the point: If you use the same angry tone of voice for everything—“You get upstairs to bed!” “You eat the rest of that dinner!” “You get dressed right now!”—you’ll find your SWC arguing with you about everything.

Some parents think it will signal weakness if they speak politely to a child instead of bluntly “laying down the law.” The fact is, you may be amazed at how much easier it is to get strong willed children to cooperate when, instead of angrily shouting,

“Get downstairs right now and get in that car!” you calmly say,

“The car leaves in two minutes—let’s go!”

2. Strong-willed children don’t need to control you; they just can’t let you take all control away from them.

Remember, we know we always have a choice. That means we have ultimate control over what we will and will not do. When SWCs are told, “You will…” or “You’re going to…” or “This is how it’s going to be…,” we may interpret that kind of speech as an attempt to take all control away from us, and we can’t let you do that. SWCs need to keep at least some control over our own lives. So when we feel cornered, we may end up exercising the only option we have left—even if it’s unpleasant or harmful.

3. The quality of the relationship we have determines the effectiveness of your parenting strategies.

In the heat of the battle, parents often forget the most critical component of effective parenting: if you have the kind of relationship with your child that she wants to preserve, you have some valuable leverage. If SWCs really enjoy spending time with you when we’re not in trouble, we’ll do our best to stay on your good side. On the other hand, what do we have to gain by obeying if you’re always yelling at us anyway? What’s the up side? One bonus here is that you don’t have to be the best parent in the neighborhood; you don’t have to be the most creative, energetic, or intelligent adult in your child’s life. The other bonus? If you work at keeping a healthy relationship, your child will have the best reason in the world to obey you and follow your guidance.

When it comes to building and maintaining a quality relationship, here are three key elements to remember:

Relationships will always matter more than rules. If we have a good relationship with you, we’ll follow your rules even if we don’t agree with them. We do it because we love and respect you.

Home should be a place we always look forward to coming back to—a safe harbor where we are understood and valued for who we are. We know you want to prepare us for dealing with a hostile world, but if you don’t provide a safe, warm place for us, who will?

We need to know that you’ll always be there for us, no matter what. That doesn’t mean you should let the SWC take advantage of you. It means your love for us is unshakable and unconditional. That same love must sometimes be tough, and it doesn’t just bail us out when we get in trouble. Above all, no matter what we say or do, no matter what consequences must be faced, we have to know your love will never disappear.

Excerpted from You Can’t Make Me by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Cynthia Ulrich Tobias is the founder, manager, and CEO of Apple St. L.L.C. (Applied Learning Styles) and president of Learning Styles Unlimited, Inc. Cynthia is a popular speaker and the best-selling author of The Way They Learn, They Way We Work, Every Child Can Succeed, Bringing Out the Best in Your Child, and Do You Know What I Like About You? Cynthia, her husband, and their twin boys live in the Seattle, Washington area.

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One Response to What Dads Need to Know: How Is the Strong-Willed Child Wired?

  1. Joanna Liriano says:

    This was such an awesome reading. I used to have to lot of issues and bad mornings with my toddler, he’s now three and those instances have basically disappeared. It took a few parenting classes (and reading this 2yrs ago would’ve helped a lot too!), but I learned to calm myself down and offer choices and now he’s often praised at school for his helpful and good behavior.

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