Strong-willed kids must be given caring discipline

Question: I want to manage and lead my strong-willed child properly, but I’m afraid I’ll break his spirit and damage him in some way.

Question: I want to manage and lead my strong-willed child properly, but I’m afraid I’ll break his spirit and damage him in some way. How can I deal with his misbehaviour without hurting his self-concept?

Answer: I sense that you do not have a clear understanding of the difference between breaking the spirit and shaping the will of a child.

The human spirit, as I have defined it, relates to the self-esteem or the personal worth that a child feels.

As such, it is exceedingly fragile at all ages and must be handled with care. You as a parent correctly assume that you can damage your child’s spirit quite easily — by ridicule, disrespect, threats to withdraw love, and by verbal rejection.

Anything that depreciates his self-worth can be costly to his spirit.

However, while the spirit is brittle and must be treated gently, the will is made of steel.

It is one of the few intellectual components that arrives full strength at the moment of birth. In a past issue of Psychology Today, this heading described the research findings from a study of infancy: “A baby knows who he is before he has language to tell us so. He reaches deliberately for control of his environment, especially his parents.”

This scientific disclosure would be no surprise to the parents of a strong-willed infant.

They have walked the floor with him in the wee small hours, listening to this tiny dictator as he made his wants and wishes abundantly clear.

Later, some defiant toddlers can become so angry that they are capable of holding their breath until they lose consciousness. Anyone who has ever witnessed this full measure of willful defiance has been shocked by its power. One headstrong three-year-old recently refused to obey a direct command from her mother, saying, “You’re just my mommy, you know!”

Another mere mommy wrote me that she found herself in a similar confrontation with her three-year-old son over something that she wanted him to eat. He was so enraged by her insistence that he refused to eat or drink anything for two full days. He became weak and lethargic but steadfastly held his ground. The mother was worried and guilt-ridden, as might be expected.

Finally, in desperation, the father looked the child in the eyes and convinced him that he was going to receive a well-deserved spanking if he didn’t eat his dinner. With that maneuver, the contest was over. The toddler surrendered. He began to consume everything he could get his hands on, and virtually emptied the refrigerator.

Now tell me, please, why have so few child-development authorities recognized this willful defiance? Why have they written so little about it? My guess is that the acknowledgement of childish imperfection would not fit neatly with the humanistic notion that little people are infused with sunshine and goodness and merely learn the meaning of selfishness and disobedience. To those who hold that rosy view I can only say, “Take another look!”

Returning to your question, your objective as a parent is to shape the will of your child while leaving his spirit intact.

James Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.family.org). Questions and answers are excerpted from Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” and “Bringing Up Boys, both published by Tyndale House.

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