Surviving the Strong-Willed, Stubborn Child

“Children should be seen, not heard” is a proverb dating more than five centuries ago, yet it is an attitude many of us still subscribe to today. What to do with the child who, in their need to be heard, is willing to shout and fight?

This is the sixth in our series on communication, Speaking the Child’s Language.

Some years ago, I was debating Montessori theory with an outsider. He was critical of the method: somehow, he got the impression that Montessori education tends to produce children who are too stubborn, who talk back and argue often, who insist on being independent and doing things their own way. Well, yes, I allowed, a child growing up in a Montessori environment might be more likely to exhibit all of these tendencies, but why is that a bad thing?

I believe that as a culture, we need to rethink our view of “the stubborn child”. An obedient and submissive child is, of course, easier to “deal with” throughout the family’s daily life; pleasant to be around in society, impressive to friends and acquaintances. He is easy; he is often called good. Does this make the challenging, stubborn child bad?

We don’t think so. We believe that the same stubborn streak that may be so frustrating during a challenging parenting moment is actually a treasure and a gift. A tool that can serve your child incredibly well throughout life, provided they learn to wield it properly. Think of the words we use to describe strong-willed children – “stubborn, disobedient, obstinate” and contrast them with the ones we use to describe adults: “determined, high-achieving, steadfast, tenacious”.

Think of the tendency to dogged stubbornness as the child’s motor, or muscle. They don’t need to weaken it, to pretend it doesn’t exist; they do however badly need to learn to direct and control it. This ability, broadly, is what modern psychology likes to call “cognitive executive functioning”; its development is slowly, finally beginning to creep into mainstream educational goals and desired outcomes. Unsurprisingly, Montessori was far ahead of the curve with her notions of self-mastery and true obedience that form the spine of our educational work to this day.

All of this is to say: if you have a very stubborn child, one who is often oppositional, who argues and fights with you, take a deep breath. This is a great thing. Be proud of her. Be optimistic about her future. And read on for more thoughts on the challenge of parenting her, and finally practical tips on how to handle the not-so-great moments now, how to support her positive development, and how to help her get a handle on all of her strength.

My Liberty Ends Where Yours Begins

The stubborn child exhibits a great need to assert herself. She wants to influence her environment, to have control over her own body and activities, to have her voice be heard. She wants to make choices and have those choices be respected.

We all want and need these things, obviously; they are universally human. We do differ in the intensity and urgency with which we need them, however; and in our ability to get those needs met. Children who are by nature more quiet or compliant might to be content with less of such self-expression, or they might value the affection and approval of their parents more than the ability to have their own way and are therefore more forgiving in this regard. What is important is to remember that the stubborn child is not unreasonable or unnatural in her drives and desires. She deserves to have them met.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that she should be allowed to mistreat others, be domineering over her friends, or behave in ways that are rude, inappropriate and disrespectful towards others. But we cannot get her to stop acting as such by punishing her nature or controlling her. Parents and teachers are not masters or owners of children: our duty is to guide, show and encourage the positive.

Over and over, in Montessori we repeat the simple truth that the best way of learning is by doing; that the best way to teach is to create safe opportunities for trial and error, experiment and experience. And that the best way to encourage positive behaviour is to role-model it.

The Ten Commandments of Working with a Strong-Willed Child

  1. Prepare yourself. Acknowledge the role of your ego, or your own hurt feelings when your child acts out – do you feel angry? Rejected? Be mindful of your emotions and work to master yourself. You do not need to be an emotionless robot – in fact, it is healthy to show a child that their behaviour influences others’ feelings – but if you cannot stay calm and avoid acting on negative emotions and impulses, how can you ask it of your child?
  2. Give age-appropriate choices and independence. This is the big one: there are so many occasions where parents exert control over their children out of habit and convenience rather than any real need. You better believe that strong-willed children are quick to know – and resent – the difference. A toddler can decide whether to wear the blue or the red shirt. A preschooler can decide whether they want to pack sandwich or leftover pasta for their school lunch. An elementary student can, and should, decide whether they should take piano or guitar classes – or whether to have any music class at all and instead pursue football.
    Especially important is to allow your child the authority over her own body. You can establish firm boundaries without breaching this limit: for example, it is reasonable to require a preschooler to rest in bed at a given time but not that they are asleep; it is perfectly appropriate to require a toddler sits at a table for a meal but absolutely wrong to force-feed them.
  3. Avoid power struggles. Be careful to remember your real purpose or motivation whenever you get into conflict – it should never be “to win”, particularly at the cost of your child “losing”; ultimately, you want both of you to “win”, don’t you?
    Particularly if there is something non-negotiable that your child needs to do, explain why that is and the consequence if they don’t; don’t let yourself get entangled in an endless back-and-forth, whether it is an angry discussion with a twelve year old or a literal, physical back-and-forth on the pavement with your toddler.
  4. Make firm limits when necessary. On the heels of the previous point: there are some things in which the parent has control and cannot give it up, for the child’s safety and well-being. A two year-old cannot be given the freedom to run around a busy road; a four year-old cannot choose to wear her favourite flimsy dress (and nothing else) to school in the middle of the winter; a thirteen year-old cannot quit school to go live on a farm like his favourite book character. What you can do is sympathize with your child’s distress and offer empathy and understanding, as well as the absolute clarity that you will not bend in this given issue. Of course, such firm limits are a lot easier for even the most stubborn child to swallow when they know (from extensive personal experience) that they do enjoy lots of freedom and independence where it is possible.
  5. Show how to compromise. You may not want your child to debate every limit and boundary, but you do want him to know how to make his case when he feels the limit should be different; how to offer a concession in return to receiving one; how to participate in the give-and-take of social bonds and relationships. Don’t be afraid to be honest with your child, at an age appropriate level, and encourage them to come up with creative solutions. For example, if you explain to an preschooler that you are tired and still have much to do, he might go and take over kitchen chores in order to get you to play cards later; if you are honest about the fact that there isn’t money in the budget to go to the cinema this week, an Elementary child might offer to sponsor the trip out of his allowance, or give up another expense.
  6. Listen to your child. We’ve written it here before and we will likely write it again: communication is a two-way street. A child cannot be expected to listen to others and consider their perspective if no one is listening to and respecting his. No parent is omniscient, either, so chances are you need to know what the child has to tell you in order to make good parenting decisions for them.
  7. Show that you see your child. Being known and understood is a profoundly positive experience for any human being, but especially the growing, changing child. There is little chance of a child being truly cooperative with you if they feel alienated, misunderstood or disregarded. To do this, help your child name and interpret his feelings and experiences, participate in pastimes that are important or enjoyable to him, take a sincere interest in their activities and friends. Learn to ask open questions and listen to the answers.
  8. Allow mistakes. Chances are, your child will be rude, insufferable, and behave very inappropriately here and then. Make sure that she knows that even when you are frustrated and angry about all these things, you still love and accept her; always make sure she knows what she did wrong and what would have been a better alternative; and next time, give her another opportunity to try again. And again, and again. It is trial and error, after all; just think of it as another learning opportunity to gain another important skill: making amends.  
  9. Own up to your own mistakes. One of the worst parenting sins is hypocrisy. Naturally, children are incredibly adept at identifying it and reacting very poorly indeed. Once again, to err is human, and we all make mistakes – when you do, you get to be a role model of acknowledging, apologizing and making things right. This is one of the most valuable lessons you can offer your child.
  10. Invest in your relationship. A child’s stubbornness can be quite frustrating – for you and for her both. The struggles and conflicts stemming out of it can sometimes overshadow the relationship between the parent and the child, and the immense love and care they hold for one another. Please trust that even in the most challenging moments, deep down your child cares deeply about your love and approval, and wants to both please you and be just like you. When in conflict, one of the most valuable things we can lean on is this love and relationship, so make sure you are nurturing and protecting it; that you give yourself and your family plenty of opportunities to just enjoy each other and share joy and love.