Thoughts on a Strong-Willed Child

boy familyThis afternoon, Henry had his seven-year well-baby check-up. Seven years ago we had our fifth son and maybe I figured I had an idea, way back when, of what I was getting myself into.

Not so much.

Five boys in a row. From the same DNA. From the same momma and daddy and you might be inclined to think “been there done that” and is life really all that interesting with so much repetition?

But of course parents of children everywhere know that I’m being silly, and especially mothers of a few boys in a row are giggling right now at the idea that any two sons are exactly alike.

When our second son Elliott came along I remember thinking, “well this should be easy, I just did all of this 21 months ago…” and of course it was not like hitting a rewind button, not at all. Ethan and Elliott are about as different as two boys can be and I had to come up with a whole new set of How To’s to deal with Elliott’s own unique needs and preferences. Some of my methods worked for most of the kids, but the truth is there is never a One Size Fit All in parenting.

Of all the boys, Henry is the one I’ll peg as “strong-willed.” I’ve hesitated to come out and brand him (though you’ve no doubt picked up on this over the years) but lately I’ve been thinking how very special and yes, challenging it is to have a strong-willed child (and I’m thinking each one of us parents could easily say who we’d give that honor, if we were inclined to share…). And so I’m willing to just claim it. My name is Rachel. I have a Strong-Willed Son.

Now you can go two ways when describing your strong-willed child. You could go the route of Willful — which in some ways has a negative vibe. Willful disobedience, willful rebellion. Lots of terms that make willful sound like a very negative character trait indeed. And there is plenty of truth to that, that a strong-willed child can steamroll the scene if not properly managed.

But lately, for some reason, I’ve had this grace to look at Henry and really relish in the absolute joy and beauty of this kind of child (of which I have a few, but he’s The Mostest). And to recognize and acknowledge that with our children, we don’t manage or control, we train, which means we do our work in light of who God made each one of these children to be.

It is hard mothering a strong-willed child because he doesn’t necessarily want to go with the flow. This child will never utter the words “we can’t do that, we are not allowed…” and rules were definitely invented to be challenged, not blindly obeyed.

Now I can hear some people tsk’ing, maybe even shaking a head in solemn judgement. “I’ll tell you how a child gets like that,” you are inclined to think, “and we should all blame the parents.”

And the reason I’m willing to write about this now is because I have finally, FINALLY!, broken free from those lies. The lies the devil has been telling me, that somehow when our children make bad choices it is because of our own poor parenting. When a child can’t behave the way I want it’s because I haven’t concocted the magic obedience solution. I mean, can we do better? Always. We can work hard and communicate clear and have a plan in place for our expectations and consequences. But can we create robot-babies who robo-leap on command? Not really… not me and Paul anyway.

What we can do, we parents of a strong-willed child, is have a plan that involves patience, discipline, prayer and patience. We need to step back and assess the situation with this child — what is the problem, what can we realistically tackle — and then come up with a way to get the job done.

But we also, in the midst of this, need to embrace the nature of our child, this beautiful gift — and the nature of ourselves as parents. I found an interesting chart recently about the four parenting quadrants, how different personalities parent. And I realized that parents can only operate out of who they are. We can’t be someone we are not, we will never expect things from our children that are outside of who we are and the values we hold. Freedom of expression, free will, perfect behavior, perfect table manners — these are all options in parenting and each mother and father will have a list of things that they decide is worth their energy — whether this is a conscious decision or not. We all put effort into the things we value, that is where we are willing to expend our energy.

And so, in light of that, what we have to ask ourselves when dealing with a particularly spirited child, is whether we are doing everything we can to meet that child’s needs. And what I’ve realized lately, where true freedom has come for me, is that the answer to that question is: yes and no.

So often in parenting, laziness can creep in. Certain children just don’t require the same amounts of energy or demand the same level of attention. And then you wake up and realize you’ve gotten in the habit of saying one child’s name repeatedly until they are good and ready to obey. This is (in case you didn’t know it) lazy parenting. And it’s ugly. Ask me how I know.

The good news is with a plan and a little caffeine, you can turn these habits around. Your own bad habits and that of your child are not doomed to be here forever. (In this case, the key is to wait until you really need the child to do what you are asking and then [light-bulb!] follow through on making that happen.) What joy and freedom in proactive parenting!

But at the heart of all these thoughts and revelations is a message of love and a reminder not to compare. Don’t look at other children who seem to tow the line beautifully; ask God to show you the wonder and beauty of YOUR child. Don’t forget that God loved you so much that he sent this creature to your care, and because of that you will have what you need to get the job done. Enjoy your child, who he is, who God made him to be; not a vision of who you think he could possibly be if you work hard enough at it. Love your child and pray for wisdom and strength to bring out his best.

For the longest time I’ve referred to our strong-willed child as a bear cub, but lately my image is changing. He seems more like a William Wallace, barreling down at anything that stands in his path. And Paul and I are tasked with the incredible responsibility of helping our boy determine what is worth tackling and plowing down and when he should practice sensibility and manners. What a mission we have!

And yet, on those days when I wish my boy would go with the flow and sit there and be quiet and just do what I said already, God seems to give me the grace to see Henry through His eyes — through the eyes of The Creator. He has given us these strong-willed creatures because he needs strong people — strong men and women to be His hands and feet. God needs a man who will stand up for righteousness — who will speak from the heart and stand fearless and true. What a gift it will be to know that man!

And in the meantime, the challenge is to do right by this child. To embrace who God made him to be, but to train up in the way he should go. To teach him to use that strength (“He’s really more like a baby rhinoceros,” I told Dr. Newton today) in the way he should. And then rest in the knowledge that God loves this boy more than Paul and I ever could, and he wants every good thing for this creature who delights him so.



  1. I love this and I totally agree. Once after struggling through Mass with one of my strong willed kids, our priest told me to be happy because once she was an adult, she would not only stick to her faith because of that strong willed nature, she’d be an apologist.

  2. Oh, how I feel your pain and joy! We also have five sons and one daughter. Our Pastor once sent me a Family Circu comic that had a mother sitting in church with three boys between her and her husband. Two of the boys had bow ties neatly at their necks. The third had his bow tie securely over his mouth! Our fifth son is Connor the Irrepressible. I love him to pieces. I am excited seeing how God uses him and look forward to the future.

  3. Cathy Green says:

    I like living next door to a young William Wallace. I relish in who he is and who he is becoming. He always has something interesting to share with me. He is already a “protector” of his sister and the cat.

  4. I love the comparison to William Wallace! My strong-willed boy just turned 16, and although he still has those strong-willed qualities, he is turning into such a special young man. He is a man of conviction and he has the most solidly formed internal moral compass of any of my sons. He is full of joy and zest for life and has leadership and people skills like nobody’s business. Coming out on the other side of young-boy headstrong-ness is really a joyful experience as a parent, as I’m now seeing the fruits of this amazing child that God left in my care!

  5. When my strong-willed boy was 4, we nicknamed him “Mr. Good Idea”. He thought all his ideas were good ideas. He does have some great ones. He’s 14 now and he is still full of good (and bad) ideas! The world needs people who have vision. He also has great people skills and is a leader. I think it can be difficult for him sometimes because he doesn’t conform. People don’t understand where he is coming from (Mom and Dad included). I agree that as parents we have to be thankful for what God gave us.

  6. Hi my name is Kim, and I am a parent of a strong-willed child as well. She (yes, a girl…they can be strong-willed, too) is 6 1/2 and I cannot believe how much joy AND grief one child can bring me. I need to bookmark this page so I can come back to it on those many nights I’m googling “strong-willed child” in tears after yet another awful bedtime. I do like the William Wallace reference…it gives me hope she’ll go on to great things (although, I hope the ending is different). If nothing else, I know she won’t be pushed around when she’s out there in the big world. Thanks for this article, Rachel! God Bless!

  7. Henry and I had the best conversation the other day. I guess he was feeling chatty! He is talented, interesting, and neat.

  8. Thanks for this piece. If it was my will my chilren would all be like me. But it’s God’s Will I’m to follow. And if they were all like me they’d have all my faults. God save them from that! ft’s interesting for me to apply this, if I can, to my classroom. How often I try too hard to have them fit a mould in order to manage them or make them conform to what they’re ‘supposed’ to be.