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.

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