Gentle Discipline and the Strong-Willed Child

One comment that I frequently hear from parents who spank is that gentle discipline would never work on their strong-willed kids. Sure, it might work if you have really easy kids, but strong-willed kids like theirs require strong punishment. I firmly believe that the opposite is true.

Lest I be accused of not being experienced with a truly strong-willed child, I should say that I have always been one, and have come to consider this a strength rather than a weakness (sorry for the pun). My eldest daughter was labelled as extremely strong-willed by a pediatrician at the tender age of six months, and nothing in the eight years since then would suggest that he was mistaken. Some of her younger siblings shows signs of even greater persistence and determination. So I know whereof I speak.

The truth is that if you enter into battle with a strong-willed child, your entire life will turn into a war zone. We will not back down, will not give in, will not surrender. If it truly becomes a fight, chances are good that one will have to defeat the other, in spirit if not physically. And that is to destroy not only part of your child’s God-given personality, but also your relationship. Either your child will be deeply imbued with shame and believe that she deserves to be treated that way, or she will continue the fight once she is older and has greater resources.

But the secret is that strong-willed children can also become your greatest allies. Strong-willed kids maintain that determination and independence in the face of peer pressure and temptation. If you explain, teach, and persuade they will do anything to follow those convictions. That is one reason why connection is vital. If they voluntarily and wholeheartedly commit to a course, you won’t have to worry about what they will do when your back is turned.

In practice, this may sometimes look like backtalk or defiance as your child wrestles with coming to a full understanding and agreement with the reasons for your requests.  Most of the time, this has nothing in common with disrespect.  Kids just don’t always phrase things in socially acceptable ways.  You can give them scripts and do overs if they need to find a more polite way to express themselves.  But if you take the time and effort to help them understand your motives, it will definitely pay off with increased cooperation.

There may also be times when they challenge your reasons.  When you have been raised with the idea of “because I’m the parent, that’s why!” it can be hard to take.  The truth is that different people will have different perspectives, and that is OK.  Your child is an individual, not a copy, and may see things in a fresh way.  Rather than letting that become a focal point of domination or anger, use it as a springboard to looking for a new solution that works for both of you.  I have been amazed at the suggestions my children have come up with that honor my desires and needs and still work for them, as well.

Gentle discipline is not about techniques that “work,” although I am convinced that it does.  It is about being the people that we want to be, and nurturing our children so that they grow in healthy ways.  Taking the time to teach rather than merely dictate and to model respect and self control not only “works” for both strong-willed and compliant children, but it is a lifestyle that is consistent with our values.

Embrace your child for who he is, including the strength and determination that are a beautiful, if occasionally inconvenient, part of his character. As that strong will grows and is guided by love, mutual respect, collaboration and shared wisdom, your child will change the world.


Dulce is learning to walk in grace with her amazing husband and four wonderful kidlets. She is a perpetual provider of magic mami milk who practices gentle discipline, shares a family bed, homeschools, teaches Spanish, and blogs at Dulce de leche. Each day brings plenty of iced coffee and a fresh lesson in trusting her children, herself and the Love that surrounds and fills us. Sometimes it feels like livin’ a vida loca, but overall, life is incredibly sweet.

14 Responses to Gentle Discipline and the Strong-Willed Child

  1. Sheila  

    I see it the other way around from the assumption you quoted at the beginning. Sure, spanking might work on a compliant child like yours, but it would NEVER work on a strong-willed child like mine! (Meanwhile, for those children who respond well to punitive discipline, it’s usually overkill because they’re pretty agreeable anyway.)

    The funny thing is, when you’re gentle and encourage cooperation, you might never find out you have a strong willed child. It’s only when I mistakenly go toe-to-toe with my son that I realize that he’s much more stubborn than I am, and that I’m never going to “win” that way. But I was encouraged by realizing he has my husband’s personality, and I always get along fine with him. The trick is giving good reasons for cooperation, until you get to the point that the other person KNOWS you have a good reason and TRUSTS that you wouldn’t ask for anything without one … so in an emergency, my son usually does obey unquestioningly, even though in the everyday matters I don’t require it. I think if he were distracted with constantly battling me, he would disobey even in the most dangerous situation, because he’s just thinking of winning and not of the possible danger.

  2. Adrienne

    Love this!! Thanks so much for the great reminders. I currently wouldn’t classify my child as “strong-willed,” in fact, he is extremely easy-going, and sometimes that concerns me. You’re exactly right that with the right teaching and molding, a strong-willed child can be trusted to make wise decisions and not be swayed. What an encouraging reminder for us parents and as my son grows and is needing more and more discipline and guidance, I’m excited to try out some new, creative, and gentle methods of teaching him what he needs to know. Thank you for this post!

    • Dulce

      Adrienne, I love it that you are so in tune with your son. 🙂 I have found that my most easy going kidlets are also very tenderhearted and sometimes their strong will manifests by being sensitive to the needs of others.

  3. Erica @ ChildOrganics  

    Wonderful post that really gives me some hope with my wee ones. We struggle with these issues on a regular basis. I needed your kind and encouraging words today, thank you!

  4. Clare Kirkpatrick  

    Thank you for writing this. I have a strong-willed child and need frequent reminders of why I am trying to parent her gently! I’ve shared it on my own blog this week 🙂

  5. Lauren  

    Yes! Thank you so much, Dulce. My little brother was strong-willed, and my parents had a mountain of books on the subject … all advocating stricter and stricter punishments. Sigh. As Sheila was saying, they did not work.

    Even without a strong-willed child (in the traditional sense), I still have to remind myself frequently that I value connection over compliance. I’m sure it’s even more challenging when your kid is the one testing every limit, but so worth it for the short and long run to continue parenting with respect. Thanks for this article!

  6. teresa  

    Literally, exactly what I needed to read. I’m sending it to my husband. We’ve been at our wit’s end. Firm believers in attachment parenting and gentle discipline and wondering if we’ve somehow failed to give her enough boundaries. But I like the way you describe the strong willed child. That’s our girl.

  7. Street Smart

    I truly believe in you.We should accept our child for who they are and embrace them totally. With that, understanding and loving them is easy.

  8. Michelle  

    My strong willed child has helped me see that there is often more than one solution to a problem. We work together to find the best solution and most of the time we can find a compromise. Obviously, when she’s adamant that she wants to wear ballet pumps in the rain (!) because ‘It’s *my* feet that will be wet, not yours!’ it becomes somewhat more of a challenge…

  9. Nancy  

    I have a strong-willed little girl (and we thought it was hard to parent a “high-needs” little boy – he’s NOT really so high-needs, just very sensitive and likes things the way he likes them, gets upset easily and is sensitive to noises, etc. . . anyway!. . .)
    Our 4 1/2 yr old little girl is so strong willed. . . first we thought it was just the difference between girls and boys, but she tests every limit, making deals and refusing what she does not want. Tests me to the breaking point, and sometimes I DO break, and just scream 🙁 Then I apologize and try to explain things. She’s had some issues in school the last couple weeks, and I think it has been that she is the middle child, and I just have NOT been spending enough alone time with her. I have to help her big brother (1st grade) with his homework, and whenever she and I are trying to spend time doing something, her little sister (16 months) climbs in the middle. She gets shafted soooo much 🙁 So I’m trying to focus on giving her quality alone time, connecting, and making sure she knows how special she is. We need to work on turning the strong will into the HUGE positive that it will be when she becomes a strong, independent, leader who knows what she wants and will go to any lengths to get it. . . and will also know what is RIGHT and go to any lengths to fight for it! I’ve always told myself it’s a positive, and encouraged that view to my husband, but it is HARD in the middle of a fight over hair-brushing! 😉

  10. Chad

    I like the article, but I would like to see some definitive means of dealing with the disobedient behavior. I feel like the article did not address that.