Google “strong-willed child” and you’ll find a plethora of articles and books about how to parent a stubborn, difficult, defiant and high-spirited child. Strong-willed children are defined as kids who defy, disobey and emphatically refuse—often with verbal or physical outbursts—to do what a parent wants them to do.
Lately, though, I’ve become convinced that labeling certain children as “strong-willed” isn’t in their best interest—nor is it entirely accurate because every child is strong-willed.
Let me repeat: Every child is strong-willed. How so? Because every child wants what he or she wants when she wants it. In other words, every single child is born selfish.
This is an important truth for all parents to grasp. Each one of your children is selfish in their core—they can’t help but look out for number one. Christian parents know this is because every child is born with a sinful nature.
Therefore, every child is strong-willed.
But every child exhibits that selfish nature in different ways. Some kids are loud, boisterous and in-your-face about their wanting what they want when they want it—the classic definition of a “strong-willed child,” if you please. However—and this is a big however—even kids who aren’t as vocal or physical about their selfish desires are still strong-willed. They have a hidden will that makes it difficult to see on the outside but inside, they are still exhibiting the same selfish tendencies.
Personally, I think parenting the classic strong-willed child is easier than the “hidden-willed” child because with an outwardly strong-willed child, you can see the struggle right in front of your eyes. You tell the outwardly strong-willed child to pick up his toys, and he throws a fit. You know exactly what’s going on in his heart, right? He’s refusing to put himself under your authority.
You tell the hidden-willed child to pick up her toys, and outwardly, she obeys. You’re happy, but what you might not notice or even have a glimpse of is what’s going on in her heart. She might be gritting her teeth on the inside, grumbling about the task, letting bitterness or envy or strife take root in her heart…and you won’t have a clue it’s there.
When I mention to parent groups how lucky they are to have strong-willed children, I often am met with disbelief. After all, strong-willed children give parents a workout in the toddler to preschool age with their almost constant questioning and testing of boundaries. Then I remind these parents that with a strong-willed child, you know exactly what’s going on in their hearts—it’s out there for all to see.
It can be just as difficult to parent a hidden-willed child because you can easily mistake outward compliance with inward compliance—and the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. With a hidden-willed child, you have to look for other signs that the child’s heart isn’t growing cold with hidden defiance, such as surly attitudes, little unkindnesses and undercover disobedience.
Whether you have a strong-willed or hidden-willed child, parents should be willing to put in the time and effort to stick to boundaries, to pay attention to a child’s heart, and to realize that we’re raising adults, not children. With an eye to the future, you can help your strong-willed or hidden-willed child become an adult who’s kind, honest, hard-working, committed and resourceful.