The strong-willed child


You will forgive me for constantly quoting James Dobson, the American paediatrician and Christian family author. I'm aware that he's not infallible!! He is, however, very helpful on matters of marriage and parenting.

We were told within months of getting married - "read James Dobson about parenting before you have kids!". It was good advice. I would also add, re-read it once you have kids. And again and again!

The book I've been re-visiting is "The Strong-willed Child", one of Dr. Dobson's first. It's so old it's now been re-written and published as "The NEW strong-willed child". Which all goes to show that just as the human heart never changes, so the fundamental problem of parenting never changes.

Defiance. What is it?

Dobson identifies it as when a child knows what you are telling them and deliberately does the opposite. He is defying you! He is asking "what are you going to do about it?!". Often we fall at this hurdle as parents of small children, and simply stop the child from doing whatever it is: eating coal, sticking his fingers in the plug socket, or running into the road. We are bigger, stronger, and can simply remove the child from the situation.

This is exhausting! Far easier to have a child who can be relied on to STOP! when told, or come when called. And let's face it, we have only so long to instil self-control into our children. I'd like to see the parent who can physically restrain a 16-year-old.

How can we do this? Dobson's answer is so simple. He says, "when your child squares up to you for a fight, you should not disappoint him"!

While you still have the physical advantage, it is very easy to teach your child to obey your instructions. You just have to be consistent. No need for screaming dementedly at him. No need to lose your rag. You just need to react.

I remember applying this with Reuben (now 7) at the age of 2 1/2. When we went out for a walk with his baby sister in the buggy, he had to come to me when I called him. Very straightforward. Very hard for a strong-willed child to do! The number of times we had a stand-off: "Come here Reuben". No reaction. "Are you going to come or do I have to come and get you? 'Cos if I have to come and get you you'll get a smack". A smack would follow! Tears, cuddle, subdued obedience; incident over.

After a few incidents like this he got the idea and started coming to me when I called. Great! A few weeks later we had a re-run. Dobson had told me to expect this. He was just asking me "are the rules still the same? Do I still have to obey you?". I had to respond with a clear "yes, buddy, I'm still going to smack you if you don't obey me!". (I tried always to ne sure that he was defying me, rather than he just hadn't heard me, before I smacked him).

I have to say it was tedious. It would have been far easier to just stick him on reins and not bother teaching him self-control. (Although I have to say that reins had their uses at times.)

Incidentally, with Reuben, we always had to smack his hand with a good sting. Zoe only needed a little pat on the hand and she was in floods of tears. Leo (still a work in progress on this one!) has been a bit of a re-run of Reuben, but even more strong-willed!

I didn't always do a very good job at this. But I know the principles, and I have to say that basically our kids do listen to me. They often need a little reminder of the basic rules... but I harldy ever have to smack Reuben now, and certainly never on this basic obedience issue.

Lots of parents (and I have seen them in the playground) get really mad at their kids for disobedience. But they never act to enforce their instructions. High blood pressure AND disobedient kids. Bad combo.

Others are simply shocked and horrified by their children's behaviour, and yet fail to act. They just hope that their kids will start behaving nicely soon, then life would be so much better. The conflict involved in having high demands of your kids, and holding them to account for it, seems to make things so upsetting if you just want a quiet life.

Other parents are calm and collected, but perhaps don't think they can expect their child to obey them at quite a young age. But you can! Children are not stupid. And they actually want structure, order and discipline in their lives. It makes them happy.

And I'm all for having happy children.