Our oldest child, Skyler, was a spirited toddler. She was vocal, determined (she started walking at 9 months), extremely active and perceptive. We thought that we had our hands full with her, until her brother came along.
Our second child, Elijah, was a strong-willed child right from the start. He was persistent and liked things done his way all the time. He made his spirited sister look like a compliant child by comparison and has kept us on our toes with his constant need to define and negotiate boundaries.
Anyone who has been a parent will tell you that parenting is hard work. After more than a decade of parenting three children with strong yet different personalities, I have ended many a day feeling emotionally drained and utterly exhausted!
Appreciate their Unique Personalities
Elijah is now seven years old, and I have come to appreciate how his thorny exterior hides a loving and sensitive interior. This little boy of mine is often misunderstood in his persistent quest to be respected. With him, we have learnt that yelling orders and demanding for absolute obedience are ineffective. Instead, giving him an extra dose of patience and affection has worked for us.
Learning expert Cynthia Ulrich Tobias explains that the strong-willed child isn’t looking to challenge authority more than the need to feel like they have a sense of control over their life.
I clearly remember one morning when Elijah was just three and a half years old. As we rushed to get the children to kindergarten, he was unhappy with everything, from having to wake up to putting on his school uniform. He fought me on my choice of school shoes for him that day and the last straw came when he insisted on eating his sister’s half-eaten kaya bun instead of a new piece. To me, it was the most ridiculous request I had heard all morning and I was adamant not to let him have his way. He ended up kicking and screaming non-stop from our front door all the way to school.
That incident taught me the importance of picking my battles — identifying which ones are necessary to ‘fight’ and which ones to let go of. In our family, disobedience, disrespect and personal safety are non-negotiables.
Strong-willed children come in many forms. While Elijah is a textbook strong-willed child, Skyler is affable, friendly and easy-going for the most part, but has shown a level of stubbornness that can be attributed to her innate strong-mindedness.
Engage and Encourage in Creative Ways
Skyler’s strong-willed nature was apparent last year when she decided to stop learning Mandarin as she no longer enjoyed the process. The night before her exam, she sat at the table refusing to revise. She refused to be persuaded, even when warned that she might fail if she didn’t make an effort to study. I realised then, that she would rather fail than alter her decision. We let her go to bed early that evening, and knew that we had to make a drastic change if we wanted to encourage our daughter to learn.
Being strong-willed ourselves, we understood the value that our spirited child placed on having freedom of choice. So now, instead of instructing her on what to revise, we ask her to choose the questions she would like to practice. For example, we tell her that she needs to complete five math questions for a specific topic, but give her the freedom to choose which questions to do. Giving Skyler a measure of autonomy helps her feel in control of her learning, and made her more receptive to our feedback as parents.
Identify Parenting Strengths and Weaknesses
Parenting has been a journey in understanding myself better. According to Dr. James Dobson, in his book The New Strong-Willed Child, “The temperaments of children tend to reflect those of their parents”. I am quite certain that our children inherited theirs from two strong-willed parents. It is not surprising then, that all three of them are similarly tough-minded!
I have become more aware of the fine line between irritation and anger, when it comes to managing my own emotions. I try to catch myself before I let my feelings get the better of me. There have been many times when my children have pushed my buttons but I have taken this advice to heart, "The moment when I am most repelled by a child’s behaviour that is my sign to draw the very closest to that child." This reminds me to take a deep breath and offer affection to my strong-willed child. While I don’t always succeed, our children now know the routine — we always come back after we calm down. The child will come back with an apology after having time to cool off and we always close the discussion with a hug and reassurance of our unconditional love for them. Building a good parent-child relationship is paramount to us. It forms the foundation of trust that will enable us to offer wisdom and constructive feedback to our children as they grow older.
And so we arm ourselves with a sense of humour, words of encouragement, a healthy dose of affection and trust that these strongly-independent children of ours will grow up to be courageous adults who dare to make a difference in their world.
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Wish to build a stronger relationship with your soon-to-be teen? Join us for an unforgettable afternoon at Create with Mum (for mums and children 11-14 years old) at www.family.org.sg/CreateWithMum.