A Child's Will

Why do some children, particularly those who are strong-willed, have sucha pugnacious temperament? One of the simplistic answers is that it reflects the admiration boys and girls have for strength and courage. They will occasionally disobey parental instructions for the precise purpose of testing the determination of those in charge. Why? Because they care deeply about the issue of "who's toughest." This helps explain the popularity of superheroes—Robin Hood and Tarzan and Spider-Man and Superman—in the folklore of children. It also explains why they often brag, "My dad can beat up your dad!" (One child said in response, "That's nothing, my mom can beat up my dad too!")

Whenever a youngster moves into a new neighborhood or a new school district, he usually has to fight (either verbally or physically) to establish himself in the hierarchy of strength. This respect for power and courage also makes children want to know how tough their leaders are. Thus, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, a Scout leader, a bus driver, or a schoolteacher, I can guarantee that sooner or later, one of the children under your authority will clench his little fist and take you on. You had better be prepared to prove him wrong in that moment, or the challenge will happen again and again.

This defiant game, which I call Challenge the Chief, can be played with surprising skill by very young children. A father told me of taking his three-year-old daughter to a basketball game. The child was, of course, interested in everything in the gym except the athletic contest. Dad permitted her to roam free and climb on the bleachers, but he set definite limits regarding how far she could stray. He took her by the hand and walked with her to a stripe painted on the gym floor. "You can play all around the building, Janie, but don't go past this line," he instructed her. He had no sooner returned to his seat than the toddler scurried in the direction of the forbidden territory. She stopped at the border for a moment, then flashed a grin over her shoulder to her father, and deliberately placed one foot over the line as if to say, "Whatcha gonna do about it?" Virtually every parent the world over has been asked the same question at one time or another.

The entire human race is afflicted with the same tendency toward willful defiance that this three-year-old exhibited. Her behavior in the gym is not sodifferent from the folly of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had toldthem they could eat anything in the Garden except the forbidden fruit ("do not gopast this line"). Yet they challenged the authority of the Almighty by deliberately disobeying His commandment. Perhaps this tendency toward self-will is the essence of original sin that has infiltrated the human family. It certainly explains whyI place such stress on the proper response to willful defiance during childhood, for that rebellion can plant the seeds of personal disaster. The weed that grows from it may become a tangled briar patch during the troubled days ofadolescence.

When a parent refuses to accept his child's defiant challenge, something changes in their relationship. The youngster begins to look at his mother and father with disrespect; they are unworthy of her allegiance. More important, she wonders why they would let her do such harmful things if they really loved her. The ultimate paradox of childhood is that boys and girls want to be led by their parents but insist that their mothers and fathers earn the right to lead them.

On behalf of those readers who have never experienced such a confrontation, let me describe how a determined kid is typically constructed. At birth he looks deceptively like his more compliant sibling. He weighs seven pounds and is totally dependent on those who care for him. Indeed, he would not survive for more than a day or two without their attention. Ineffectual little arms and legs dangle aimlessly in four directions, appearing to be God's afterthoughts. What a picture of vulnerability and innocence he is!

Isn't it amazing, given this beginning, what happens in twenty short months? Junior then weighs twenty-five pounds and he's itching for action. This kid who couldn't even hold his own bottle less than two years earlier now has the gall to look his two-hundred-pound father straight in the kisser and tell him where to get off? What audacity! Obviously, there is something deep within his soul that longs for control. He will work at achieving it for the rest of his life.

When our children were young, we lived near one of these little spitfires. He was thirty-six months old at the time and had already bewildered and overwhelmed his mother. The contest of wills was over. He had won it. His sassy talk, to his mother and anyone else who got in his way, was legendary in the neighborhood. Then one day my wife watched him ride his tricycle down the driveway and into the street, which panicked his mother. We lived on a curve and the cars came around that bend at high speed. The woman rushed out of the house and caught up with her son as he pedaled down the street. She tookhold of his handlebars to redirect him, and he came unglued.

"Get your dirty hands off my tricycle!" he screamed. His eyes were squinted in fury. As Shirley watched in disbelief, this woman did as she was told. The life of her child was in danger, yet this mother did not have the courage to make him obey her. He continued to ride down the street while she trailed along behind, hoping for the best.

How could it be that a tiny little boy at three years of age was able to buffalo his thirty-year-old mother in this way? Clearly, she had no idea how to manage him. He was simply tougher than she—and they both knew it. This mild-mannered woman had produced an iron-willed youngster who was willing to fight with anyone who tried to run him in, and you can be sure that his mom's physical and emotional resources were continually drained by his antics. We lost track of this family, but I'm sure this kid's adolescent years were something to behold.

In thinking about the characteristics of compliant and defiant children, I soughtan illustration to explain the vastly differing thrusts of human temperaments. I found an appropriate analogy in a supermarket. Imagine yourself in a grocery store,pushing a cart up the aisle. You give the basket a small shove, and it glides at least nine feet out in front and then comes to a gradual stop. You walk along happily tossing in the soup and ketchup and loaves of bread. Grocery shopping is such an easy task, for even when the cart is burdened with goods, it can be directed with one finger.

But buying groceries is not always so blissful. On other occasions, you select a cart that ominously awaits your arrival at the front of the market. When you push the stupid thing forward, it tears off to the left and knocks over a stack of bottles. Refusing to be outmuscled by an empty cart, you throw all your weight behind the handle, fighting desperately to keep the ship on course. It seems to have a mind of its own as it darts toward the eggs and careens back in the direction of a terrified grandmother in green tennis shoes. You are trying to do the same shopping assignment that you accomplished with ease the week before, but the job feels more like combat duty today. You are exhausted by the time you herd the contumacious cart toward the checkout counter.

What is the difference between the two shopping baskets? Obviously, one has straight, well-oiled wheels that go where they are guided. The other has crooked, bent wheels that refuse to yield.

Do you get the point? We might as well face it; some kids have crooked wheels! They do not want to go where they are led, because their own inclinations take them in other directions. Furthermore, the parent who is pushing the cart must expend seven times the energy to make it move, compared with the parent of a child with straight wheels. (Only mothers and fathers of strong-willed children will fully comprehend the meaning of this illustration.)

But how is the strength of the will distributed among children? My original assumption was that this aspect of human temperament is represented by a typical bell-shaped curve. In other words, I presumed that a relatively small number of very compliant kids appeared at one end of the continuum and an equally small number of defiant youngsters were represented at the other. The rest, comprising the majority, were likely to fall somewhere near the middle of the distribution.

However, having talked to at least 100,000 harried parents, I'm convinced that mysupposition was wrong. Maybe it only seems that the majority of toddlers are confirmed anarchists. Furthermore, there is a related phenomenon regarding sibling relationships that I have never been able to explain. When there are two children in the family, one is likely to be compliant and the other defiant. Who knows why it works out that way. There they are, born to the same parents, but as different as though they came from different planets. One cuddles to your embrace and the other kicks you in the navel. One is a natural sweetheart and the other goes through life like hot lava. One follows orders and the other gives them. Quite obviously, they are marching to a different set of drums.

Former U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt was clearly a strong-willed child and grew up to be a very strong-willed man. When he was a boy, he once strung a string across the top of the stairs where it could not be seen. Predictably, his nurse came along carrying a supper tray and tripped, making what must have been a spectacular plunge downward. The record does not reveal what punishment he received for this wicked trick. We are told, however, that Franklin was very bossy with his peers and that he liked to win at everything. When he was once scolded for the way he treated other children, he said, "Mummie, if I didn't give the orders, nothing would happen." That is a strong-willed child.

Temperamental differences often create serious relational problems within the family. The strong-willed child faces constant discipline and is subjected to many threats and finger-wagging lectures, while his angelic brother, little Goody Two-shoes, polishes his halo and soaks up the warmth of parental approval. They are pitted against each other by the nature of their divergent personalities and may spend a lifetime scratching and clawing one another.

I have described the approach to life taken by the tougher kids. Let's look quickly at the easygoing child, who spends most of his time trying to make his parents happy. In reality, he needs their praise and approval; thus his personality is greatly influenced by this desire to gain their affection and recognition. A word of displeasure or even the slightest frown from his parents can disturb him. He is a lover, not a fighter.

A few years ago I talked with the mother of one of these pleasant kids. She was concerned about the difficulties her son was having in nursery school.He was being bullied every day by the more aggressive children, but it was not within him to defend himself. Thus, each afternoon when his mother came to get him, he had been whacked and harassed again by these other boys. Eventhe girls were joining in the fun.

"You must defend yourself!" his mother said again and again. "Those other children will keep hitting you until you make them stop!"

Each day she urged her little lover to be more assertive, but it contradicted his nature to do so. Finally, his frustration became so great that he began reaching for the courage to follow his mother's advice. As they rode to school one morning he said, "Mom! If those kids pick on me again today, I'm—I'm—I'm going to beat them up! Slightly."

How does one beat up someone else "slightly"? I don't know, but it made perfect sense to this compliant child. He didn't want to use any more force than was absolutely necessary to survive. Why? Because he had a peace-loving nature. His parents didn't teach it to him. It was rooted deep within his psyche.

I must make it clear that the compliant child is not necessarily wimpy or spineless. That fact is very important to our understanding of his nature and how he differs from his strong-willed sibling. The distinction between them is not a matter of confidence, willingness to take risks, sparkling personalities, or other desirable characteristics. Rather, the issue under consideration here is focused on the strength of the will—on the inclination of some children to resist authority and determine their own course, as compared with those who are willing to be led. It is my supposition that these temperaments are prepackaged before birth and do not have to be cultivated or encouraged. They will make themselves known soon enough.

By the way, there is another category of temperaments in children that some parents will recognize instantly. These kids are not really strong-willed—at least, their assertiveness is not expressed in the same way. The distinction here is not one of independence and aggressiveness. It is a matter of tactics. They rarely challenge the authority of their parents or teachers in a stiff-necked manner, but they are willful nonetheless. I call them "sneaky." Adults think these youngsters are going along with the program, but inside, there's subversion afoot. When no one is looking, they break the rules and push the limits. When caught, as inevitably they are, they may lie or rationalize or seek to hide the evidence. The appropriate approach to these sneaky kids is not appreciably different from handling the strong-willed child. Sooner or later, his or her self-will can be expected to breakinto the open,usually during early adolescence. Then it's "Katie, bar the door."

I'll close by offering two more observations for parents who are raising strong-willed children. First, it is very common for these moms and dads to feel great guilt and self-condemnation. They are trying so hard to be good parents, but the struggle for control that goes on at home day after day leaves them frustrated and fatigued. No one told them that parenthood would be this difficult, and they blame themselves for the tension that arises. They had planned to be such loving and effective parents, reading fairy tales by the fireplace to their pajama-clad angels, who would then toddle happily off to bed. The difference between life as it is and life as it ought to be is distressing. We'll talk more about that presently.

Second, I have found that the parents of compliant children don't understand their friends with defiant youngsters. They intensify guilt and embarrassment by implying, "If you would raise your kids the way I do mine, you wouldn't be having those awful problems." May I say to both groups that willful children can be difficult to manage even when parents handle their responsibilities with great skill and dedication. It may take several years to bring such a youngster to a point of relative obedience and cooperation within the family unit, and indeed a strong-willed child will be a strong-willed individual all her life. While she can and must be taught to respect authority and live harmoniously with her neighbors, she will always have an assertive temperament. That is not a bad thing. It simply "is." During the childhood years, it is important for parents not to panic. Don't try to "fix" your tougher boy or girl overnight. Treat that child with sincere love and dignity, but require him or her to follow your leadership. Choose carefully the matters that are worthy of confrontation, then accept her challenge on those issues and win decisively. Reward every positive, cooperative gesture she makes by offering your attention, affection, and verbal praise. Then take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

From The The New Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson

Group Created with Sketch.