“Which set of pajamas do you want? The space ones or the biking alligators?” I asked my three-year-old.
“Nope,” he answered. Nope is the casual middle finger of answers. So much for offering choices.
“How about these?” I said, holding up a pair with bears on them.
“Nope,” he said, lounging with his hands behind his head on his bed like it was a pool floatie in Malibu.
After a few more choices, he finally acquiesced to wearing a pair. We don’t go through this particular back-and-forth every night, but it’s just one in his bag of tricks to delay bedtime.
My son is one of those kids who doesn’t want to do anything that’s demanded of him. “Because I said so” is a foreign phase to him. He wants a good justification for every decision and preferably to feel like he came up with the idea himself.
Part of this is my fault, for better or worse. Our family practices positive parenting, which is largely focused on validating children’s feelings and perspectives while teaching them to do the same for others. And as a science writer and communicator, I love explaining our choices.
But some of it is just his personality. I’m pretty sure if we tried to be more authoritarian, he’d just dig his heels in harder. The times that I start to get bossy go downhill very quickly. Despite the fact that having a stubborn kid with a strong will is sometimes a pain in the butt, there are some definite advantages to it for our family.
Teaching me patience
There’s a saying in churches to “Never pray for patience.” That’s because the situations that build your patience are usually pretty miserable to go through!
But if there’s one thing dealing with a stubborn kid teaches you, it’s patience. Yelling at them only makes the situation worse, so holding your temper is essential. Breathing deep and talking purposely become fundamental tools in my parenting toolkit.
For us, that patience has paid off. Over time, Sprout has started listening to me more and more. In addition, learning to have patience can help you extend it to other people in challenging situations, like your co-workers or your own parents.
Forcing me to learning how to be creative with getting buy-in
Demanding Sprout do something only gets you met with a blank stare and complete lack of movement. Picking him up or physically dragging him somewhere often results in him sprinting away or yelling, depending on the circumstance.
But if he can see what’s in it for him – or what he’ll miss out on if he doesn’t do it – he’s much more motivated. As the authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk suggests, you can ask your kid for ideas and take them seriously. Sometimes Sprout comes up with ideas I legitimately didn’t think of. Even if his suggestions are impractical, sometimes we can build off of them to get a better solution.
Another is to be willing to negotiate. I know that parenting books tell you never to negotiate, but it has benefits. To play off of children’s inherent value of fairness, I tell him that we will try to find a solution that will make both of us happy.
While obviously we don’t want to parent our co-workers, learning to legitimately get buy-in is so helpful in your career. It can help you work with people you don’t have direct power over and motivate people that you supervise.
Figuring out what’s really important to you and your family
During toddlerhood, people tell you to “pick your battles.” Personally, I tend not to see my parenting in war metaphors. But it’s true when you’re parenting a stubborn kid, you’re not going to get everything you want when you want it. (That’s true of all kids, but especially strong-willed ones). Ignoring annoying behavior that’s not actually harmful is so important that there’s a whole parenting book out about it!
Instead of fussing over everything, you have to decide where you draw those lines. Deciding on a core set of rules helps you figure out what values you find important and you want to pass on to your kids. Having a clear, limited number of rules with well-thought out reasons why they exist reduces conflict, sets clear boundaries for kids, and helps them really internalize those values.
Our number one cardinal rule is that we do not hurt people in purpose, either physically or emotionally. Most of our other rules involve safety, like not standing on chairs or opening the back door without us. (With Sprout’s preoccupation with doors, that latter one has been challenging lately.)
Knowing strong-willed kids will stand up what what they believe in
People who are strong-willed as children will probably maintain that trait through adulthood. Help them use it for good, not harm! If those kids have adopted values about kindness, compassion, and equality, they’ll use their strong will to defend them. Instead of backing down from a bully or societal pressures, they’ll stick to their moral compass.
Knowing stubborn kids will keep trying and have grit
Strong-willed kids want their own way even when it’s inconvenient for you. But they also often want their own way when it’s hard or inconvenient for them. Even if a kid isn’t good at a task the first time, they’ll keep trying at something until they get it. I’m not talented musically, but I spent eight years practicing my saxophone in high school simply because I wanted to be good at it. Since Sprout got his pedal bike, he’s been practicing constantly, despite running head-on into playground equipment multiple times. (As he said to me afterwards, “That’s why we wear our helmets.”)
Strong will plus passion equals grit, one of the most important traits you can have in life. As success in general and in motivating social change in particular requires lots of failing before you succeed, I’m confident his strong-willed nature will serve him well in the long run.
Even if getting dressed is sometimes a hassle, I love my strong-willed, sometimes stubborn kid. And I love how being his mom has helped me be a better person.