Author: Dr. James Dobson

Publisher: Tyndale House

Release Date: April 2007

ISBN: 978-1-4143-1363-4

James C. Dobson, Ph.D., hosts the daily radio program Family Talk with Dr. James Dobson. He is founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization that produced his internationally syndicated radio programs, where he was heard by more than 200 million people every day in 160 countries.

He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in the field of child development.


Just as surely as some children are naturally compliant, others seem to be defiant upon exit from the womb. Their frustrated parents wonder where they went wrong and why their child-rearing experience is so different from what they had expected. They desperately need a little coaching about what to do next.

But why did this book need to be retooled more than twenty-five years downstream? It is certainly not because the nature of children has changed since the seventies. Kids are kids and always will be. It is rather because the scientific understanding of inborn temperaments in little people is far greater now than it was two or three decades ago.

The other reason I set about revising The Strong-Willed Child is because I’ve now had many more years to work with families and to compare the approaches that succeed with those that clearly do not. Those experiences have been interwoven into the fabric of this edition, in hopes that they will be of help and encouragement to today’s parents and for generations to come.

The Wild & Woolly Will

When I wrote twenty-five years ago, there was hardly a text for parents or teachers that adequately acknowledged the struggle—the confrontation of wills—that strong-willed children seem to love. For them, adult leadership is rarely accepted unchallenged; it must be tested and found worthy before it is respected. It is one of the frustrating aspects of child rearing that most parents have to discover for themselves.

But why do some children, particularly those who are strong-willed, have such a pugnacious temperament? Because they care deeply about the issue of “who’s toughest.”

Whenever a youngster moves into a new neighborhood or a new school district, he usually has to fight (either verbally or physically) to establish himself in the hierarchy of strength. This respect for power and courage also makes children want to know how tough their leaders are. Thus, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, a Scout leader, a bus driver, or a schoolteacher, I can guarantee that sooner or later, one of the children under your authority will clench his little fist and take you on.

When a parent refuses to accept his child’s defiant challenge, something changes in their relationship. The youngster begins to look at his mother and father with disrespect; they are unworthy of her allegiance. More important, she wonders why they would let her do such harmful things if they really loved her. The ultimate paradox of childhood is that boys and girls want to be led by their parents but insist that their mothers and fathers earn the right to lead them.

What Makes Them the Way They Are?

Let’s examine now a more thorough answer to the fundamental question about willful defiance: Why is it that most children seem to have a need to take on those in authority over them? Why won’t they follow reasonable instructions and leave it at that?

It is simply part of their emotional and intellectual package brought with them into the world. This aspect of inborn temperament is not something boys and girls learn. It is something they are.

The early authorities in the field of child development denied what their eyes told them. Children, they said, are blank slates upon which the environment and experience will be written. The more accurate view, however, based on careful research, recognizes that while experience is very important in shaping the human personality, the “blank slate” hypothesis is a myth. Children don’t start life at the same place. They bring with them an individuality that is uniquely their own, different from that of every other individual who has ever lived. Let me say again that one of their innate characteristics is what I have termed “the strength of the will,” which varies from child to child.

What is clear is that heredity provides a nudge in a particular direction—a definite impulse of inclination—but one that can be brought under the control of our rational processes. In fact, we must learn early in life to do just that.

Shaping the Will

A child who behaves in ways that are disrespectful or harmful to himself or others often has a hidden motive. Whether he recognizes it or not, he is usually seeking to verify the existence and stability of the boundaries.

With that said, let’s hurry along now to the how-tos of shaping a child’s will. I’ve boiled this complex topic down to six straight-forward guidelines that I hope will be helpful, the first of which is most important and will be dealt with in greater detail.

  1. Begin teaching respect for authority while children are very young. The most urgent advice I can give to the parents of an assertive, independent child is to establish their positions as strong but loving leaders when Junior and Missy are in the preschool years. When that nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between generations, it is extremely important for the adults to display confidence and decisiveness. Nothing is more destructive to parental leadership than for a mother or father to equivocate during that struggle.
  2. Define the boundaries before they are enforced. Preceding any disciplinary event is the necessity of establishing reasonable expectations and boundaries for the child. She should know what is and is not acceptable behavior before she is held responsible for it. This precondition will eliminate the sense of injustice that a youngster feels when she is punished or scolded for violating a vague or unidentified rule.
  3. Distinguish between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility. When accidents happen, patience and tolerance are the order of the day. There is another category of behavior, however, that is strikingly different. It occurs when a child defies the authority of the parent in a blatant manner. She may shout “I will not!” or “You shut up!” or “You can’t make me.” When mothers and fathers fail to be the boss in a moment like that, they create for themselves and their families a potential lifetime of heartache.
  4. Reassure and teach after the confrontation is over. After a time of conflict during which the parent has demonstrated his right to lead (particularly if it resulted in tears for the child), the youngster between two and seven (or older) will probably want to be loved and reassured. By all means, open your arms and let him come! Hold him close and tell him of your love. This is a teachable moment, when the objective of your discipline can be explained.
  5. Avoid impossible demands. Be absolutely sure that your child is capable of delivering what you require. Never punish him for wetting the bed involuntarily or for not becoming trained by one year of age or for doing poorly in school when he is incapable of academic success. These impossible demands put the child in an irresolvable conflict: there is no way out.
  6. Let love be your guide! A relationship that is characterized by genuine love and affection is likely to be a healthy one, even though some parental mistakes and errors are inevitable.

These six steps should, in my view, form the foundation for healthy parent-child relationships. there is one more ingredient that will round out the picture. We will read about it in the next chapter.

Protecting the Spirit

I must offer a very important clarification and precaution at this point related to the task of shaping the will of strong-willed children. The reader might conclude from what I have written that I think of “little people” as the villains and their parents as the inevitable good guys. Of course that is not true. Children, including those who regularly challenge authority, are delightful little creatures who need buckets of love and understanding every day of their life.

Our objective, then, is not simply to shape the will, but to do so without breaking the spirit. To understand this dual objective of parenting, we need to clarify the distinction between the will and the spirit. The will, as we have seen, represents one’s deeply ingrained desire to have his or her way.

Whereas the will is made of titanium and steel, the human spirit is a million times more delicate. It reflects the self-concept or the sense of worthiness that a child feels. It is the most fragile characteristic in human nature and is especially vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, and failure.

How, then, are we to shape the will while preserving the spirit? It is accomplished by establishing reasonable boundaries in advance and then enforcing them with love, while avoiding any implications that a child is unwanted, unnecessary, foolish, ugly, dumb, burdensome, embarrassing, or a terrible mistake. Any accusation or reckless comment that assaults the worth of a child, such as “You are so stupid!” can do lifelong damage. Once such mean, cutting words have left our lips, even though we may be repentant a few hours later, they have a way of burning their way into a child’s soul where they may remain alive and virulent for the next fifty years.

The Most Common Mistake

Anger does not influence behavior unless it implies that something irritating is about to happen. By contrast, disciplinary action does cause behavior to change. Not only does anger not work, I am convinced that it produces a destructive kind of disrespect in the minds of our children. They perceive that our frustration is caused by our inability to control the situation.

I am not recommending that parents and teachers conceal their legitimate emotions from their children. There are times when our boys and girls become insulting or disobedient to us and revealing our displeasure is entirely appropriate. But it should never become a tool to get children to behave when we have run out of options and ideas. It is ineffective and can be damaging to the relationship between generations.

Parents must fit their disciplinary approach to their own personality patterns and the responses that feel natural. However, the overriding principle remains the same for men and women, mothers and fathers, coaches and teachers, pediatricians and psychologists: It involves discipline with love, a reasonable introduction to responsibility and self-control, parental leadership with a minimum of anger, respect for the dignity and worth of the child, realistic boundaries that are enforced with confident firmness, and a judicious use of rewards and punishments to those to challenge and resist.

Gearing Discipline to the Needs of Children

While the broad principles I have provided to this point are widely applicable to children, each boy and girl is different, requiring his or her parents to interpret and apply them individually to the complex personality patterns evident in that particular youngster. Added to that challenge is the fact that the target is always moving. Developmental stages are in constant flux, so that Mom and Dad must be prepared to zig and zag year by year. The best I can do to assist you in responding to this ever-changing pattern is to offer some guidelines for each age category and suggest that you use them to formulate your own techniques and understanding.

Let’s begin at birth and weave our way through the childhood years. Please understand that this discussion is by no means exhaustive and merely suggests the general nature of disciplinary methods at specific periods.

  • Birth to Seven Months. No direct discipline is necessary for a child under seven months of age, regardless of the behavior or circumstance. Many parents do not agree and find themselves swatting a child of six months for wiggling while being diapered or for crying at midnight. This is a serious mistake. A baby is incapable of comprehending his offense or associating it with the resulting punishments. At this early age, infants need to be held, loved, touched, and soothed with the human voice.
  • Eight to Fourteen Months. Many children will begin to test the authority of their parents during the second seven-month period. How do parents discipline a one-year-old? Very carefully and gently! Children at this age are easy to distract and divert. Have the courage to lead the child without being harsh or mean or gruff.
  • Fifteen to Twenty-Four Months. Let me caution parents not to punish toddlers for behavior that is natural and necessary to learning and development. Do not ever punish them for touching something, regardless of its value, that they did not know was off-limits. With respect to dangerous items, such as electric plugs and stoves, as well as a few untouchable objects such as the TV controls, it is possible and necessary to teach and enforce the command “Don’t touch!” After making it clear what is expected a a slap on the hand will usually discourage repeat episodes.
  • Two to Three years of Age. You must keep a sense of humor during the twos and threes in order preserve your own sanity. But you must also proceed with the task of instilling obedience and respect for authority. Specifically, how does one discipline a naughty two- or three-year-old child? One possible approach is to require her to sit in a chair and think about what she has done. Parents who cannot require a toddler to stay on a chair for a few minutes or in bed at the end of the day are not yet in command of the child. There is no better time than now to change the relationship.
  • Four to Eight Years. By the time a child reaches four years of age, the focus of discipline should not only be on his or her behavior, but also on the attitudes motivating it. But how does one shape the attitudes of children? There is no substitute for parental modeling of the attitudes we wish to teach. Our children are watching us carefully, and they instinctively imitate our behavior.
  • Nine to Twelve Years. Ideally, the foundation has been laid during the first nine years that will then permit a general loosening of the lines of authority. Every year that passes should bring fewer rules, less direct discipline, and more independence for the child. The overall objective during this final preadolescent period is to teach the child that his actions have inevitable consequences. You see, all through childhood some loving parents seem determined to intervene between behavior and consequences, breaking the connection and preventing the valuable learning that could have occurred. But the best approach is to expect boys and girls to carry the responsibility that is appropriate for their age and occasionally to taste the bitter fruit that irresponsibility bears.

Corporal Punishment & the Strong-Willed Child

No subject distresses me more than the tragedy of child abuse, which is depressingly common today. it is probable that a youngster living within a mile or two of your house is experiencing physical or emotional abuse in one form or another.

Given the delicate relationship between parents and their children and the rising incidence of physical and emotional assaults on boys and girls, the last thing I want to do is to provide a rationalization or justification for anything that could hurt them. Let me say it once more: I don’t believe in harsh, oppressive, demeaning discipline, even when it is well-intentioned.

Considering this lifelong commitment to the welfare of children, why would I recommend corporal punishment as a management tool?

In those situations when the child fully understands what he is being asked to do or not to do but refuses to yield to adult leadership, an appropriate spanking is the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment. When he lowers his head, clenches his fists, and makes it clear he is going for broke, justice must speak swiftly and eloquently. This response does not create aggression in children, but it does help them control their impulses and live in harmony with various forms of benevolent authority throughout life.

There is another reason I believe the proper use of corporal punishment is in the best interest of children. Strong-willed boys and girls can be terribly irritating to their parents, as we all know. Most of them have figured out how to press all the right (or wrong) buttons to make their moms and dads absolutely furious. Given that kind of volatile interaction, I am convinced that a determined, hard-nosed kid in the hands of an immature or emotionally unstable parent is a recipe for disaster. The likelihood of physical damage to that youngster is enormous, and it becomes even greater if the parents have been stripped of the ability to control challenging behavior before it gets out of hand.

How much better, and safer, it is for moms and dads to administer a judicious and carefully measured spanking to a child (or even a well-timed swat or two), before she and her parents are both out of control.

The Strong-Willed Adolescent

A hundred years ago, when fourteen-year-old Billy Bob Brown, the strong-willed son of Farmer Brown, began to get snippy around the house, his dad could take him out to the back forty acres and “get his mind straight.” Now, teen pop culture imposes on parent-child relationships a vast and enormously influential network of ideas, enticements, sexuality, profanity, support, and, mostly, an articulation of anger that compounds the difficulties of growing up.

I strongly urge you to get those devices, whether they are television sets, computers, DVDs, or VCRS out of the bedroom. Locate them in the family room, where they can be monitored and where the amount of time spent on them is regulated. How can you do less for your children? Otherwise, our kids are sitting ducks for the con men of our time who want to control their hearts and minds.

With that, I’ll offer some other ideas and suggestions that relate to all adolescents, including those who are harder to handle.

  1. Give teenagers the gifts they hunger for most—respect and dignity! An adolescent’s worth as a human being hangs precariously on peer-group acceptance, which is notoriously fickle. If you can communicate kindness to your oppressed and harassed teenagers, even to those who are sullen and difficult, then many of the usual disciplinary problems of adolescence can be circumvented.
  2. The key to the puzzle. Why the sudden volatility and irrationality? It’s the mischievous hormones that have begun to surge! Don’t be too discouraged when the storms are raging. Keep your confidence when under fire, and do the best you can to work your way through these conflicts.
  3. Pry open the door of communication. Prying open the door communication with an angry adolescent can require more tact and skill than any other parenting assignment. An open boy or girl may reveal deep feelings at such a moment of communication, permitting a priceless time of catharsis and ventilation.
  4. Keep them moving. And now a word of practical advice for the parents of very strong-willed adolescents. My advice is to get these energetic, mischievous teenagers occupied in constructive activities (without overdoing it).
  5. Use incentives and privileges to advantage. Since it is unwise (and unproductive) to spank a teenager, parents can only manipulate environmental circumstances when discipline is required. They control the family purse and can choose to share it or loan it or dole it or close it.
  6. Hold on with an open hand. In short the parental purpose should be to grant increasing freedom and responsibility year by year, so that when the child gets beyond adult control, he or she will no longer need it. When this assignment is handled properly, a high school senior should be largely emancipated, even though he still lives with his parents.
  7. Above all else, introduce your kids to Jesus Christ and then ground them thoroughly in the principles of your faith. This is job #1. I can’t overstate the importance of teaching diving accountability, especially to your strong-willed children. Since their tendency is to test the limits and break the rules they will need this internal standard to guide their behavior.

A Final Word of Encouragement

I want to offer hope to those moms and dads today who are demoralized at this stage of the journey. First, you must recognize that strong-willed children are not a liability, and you should never let yourself feel victimized or cheated by having borne one of them.

You should also recognize that these kids often possess a certain strength of character that will help them grab the opportunities that come their way.

In short, the youngster who sometimes exasperates you today probably has little green buds growing all over his tree, even if all you see now are the barren twigs of winter. It will take time for him or her to flower, of course, but springtime is on its way.

Let’s review the important concepts I have put forward one more time, focusing especially on the principles calculated to produce a positive outcome in the years to come.

  1. You should not blame yourself for the temperament with which your child was born. She is simply a tough kid to handle, and your task is to match her stride for stride.
  2. Your strong-willed child is in greater danger because of his inclination to test the limits and scale the walls. You simply have to be tougher than he is, but do it without being angry and oppressive.
  3. If you fail to understand his lust for power and independence, you can exhaust your resources and bog down in guilt.
  4. For parents who have just begun, take charge of your baby now, hold tightly to the reins of authority, and quickly begin building into her an attitude of respect and obedience.
  5. Don’t panic, even during the storms of adolescence. You’re going to get through this.
  6. Don’t let your child stray too far from you emotionally. Stay in touch.
  7. Give that kid time to find herself, even if she appears not to be searching.
  8. Most importantly, I urge you to hold your children before the Lord in fervent prayer day by day by day. Begin every morning with a prayer for wisdom and guidance. I am convinced that there is no other true source of confidence in parenting.

Adapted from The New Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson. Copyright © 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

240 pages. $14.99.
ISBN: 978-1-4143-1363-4

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