Discipline for the Strong-Willed Child

My son, Aaron, taught me valuable lessons on how to choose my battles … and win them.

by Kendra Smiley

I knew a young couple that announced from the beginning of their daughter's life that they were not going to discipline her until she was able to talk. To them, words would indicate under-handing on the part of their child, and that was the guideline they established. Although their daughter was still not talking at eighteen months old, they continued with their strategy: "no discipline until Mandi is able to talk to us."

Mandi was no dummy, and I watched her get by with some pretty defiant behavior while keeping her mouth shut. In fact, it is my theory (never to be proven or disproved) that Mandi was capable of talking long before she finally uttered her first words. She knew that sooner or later she would talk, and the jig would be up. Then her parents would go to "part two" of the program and begin to discipline her. She held out as long as she could, until around the age of two as I recall, and then she gave in. If Mandi was a strong-willed child like Aaron, she might still be silent today!

How to discipline a strong-willed dhild

So how do you discipline a strong-willed child? There are many different ways. A parent can give the child an explanation or a "time-out." These are sometimes quite effective. So is spanking. We did not use only one form of discipline with our strong-willed child or with our other children. The most important thing to remember is that discipline must NEVER be administered in anger. Spanking is a form of discipline that does not require a long time frame to accomplish. Someone asked me once if I typically used a timeout with my strong-willed child. No, I didn't. As I reflected on Aaron's strong-willed nature, I realized that if I had, he would probably still be in time out and would not have been able to attend college. No, we had a paddle, "Mr. Sore Butt." I know, it's not a very elegant title, and I'm sure my mother would have preferred the name "Mr. Sore Bottom." Nevertheless, it was effective.

Punishment is meant to deter negative behavior, that is, to dissuade and discourage inappropriate or potentially dangerous behavior and defiance. Your punishment must have impact. A light tap on the bottom of a diapered strong-willed toddler is not accomplishing your goal of punishment.

Setting boundaries … and keeping them

What about the parent who sets the boundaries, witnesses her child cross them, follows through on the predetermined discipline, and then begins to feel sorry for her child, and cancels the punishment in midstream, before the entire "sentence" is served? Woe to that parent. The fancy term for what transpired is intermittent reinforcement. Modern science has proved that sporadically reinforced behavior is very difficult to extinguish.

Parents exercise intermittent reinforcement for two main reasons. They feel sorry for their child. (After all, Little Johnny has been inside for two whole days now, and all the neighborhood kids are frolicking right outside his window.) Or, they are too exhausted to administer the punishment. Strong-willed children are persistent, and as the parent of one, it is important for you to be more persistent. If your strong-willed child can wear you down or convince you that you were overboard with your discipline, he will. If you are inconsistent with your discipline, your strong-willed child will battle longer, imagining that this is another time that you will give in. If you are consistent, the chances of your strong-willed child eventually giving up the fight are increased.

Giving in is the opposite of winning the battle. It is losing the battle. Remember that winning the battle is one of the "Rules of the Road" for a successful journey. I was most guilty in this department when it came to potty training. Again, there was a stark contrast between my first, compliant child, and my second, strong-willed child.

I can still hear my mother saying, "All you have to do is feed him oatmeal for breakfast, every day at the same time, and then have him sit on the potty." It sounds so simple, doesn't it? And that is exactly what I did with Matthew, and within weeks he was done having accidents. (Do I need to remind you again of my amazing skills as a mother? Just wait, my big head will deflate soon enough.) So what did I do with Aaron? Why, of course, I did the same thing. And when he didn't respond as rapidly as his older brother, I immediately tried plan B. That was the reward plan, as I recall. And in a few days when that had no obvious result, I went to plan C. I think that one was some kind of a point system. By plan F, I was thoroughly frustrated with Aaron and with potty training. Talk about something that he alone was able to control. In retrospect, I realize that I was not consistent or persistent. I intermittently reinforced his noncompliance by switching strategies. In short, I didn't do a very good job. Fortunately, he finally decided that it was in his best interest to join the ranks of the potty trained.

Parents, every day you have to decide where you'll draw the line—what behavior is permissible and what will not be tolerated. You'll have to be ready for battle every day until your child makes his own decision to stop battling. The hope is that his determination for control will lessen each day. But until he decides to acquiesce, I guarantee you that you will be pushed and tested. The more often you give in, the worse it will get, and the longer the process will take. If you hold firm, your strong-willed child will eventually give up engaging in many of the fights. Don't be shortsighted. Raising a strong-willed child is not a sprint; it's a marathon.

Adapted from Aaron's Way: The Journey of a Strong-Willed Child by Kendra Smiley with Aaron Smiley. Published by Moody Publishers. Copyright © 2004 by Kendra Smiley. Used with permission.

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