Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child

I have what some call a spirited child or a stubborn child. I’ve looked at many books on the topic and finally found one that resonated with me, Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D.. I liked everything about the title. I love thinking of her as strong-willed, rather than spirited or stubborn. Strong-willed makes me believe she will use it positively to get what she needs as she grows into adulthood. Setting limits with her rather than for her, seems like it will be much more effective. Here’s my two cents on the book so far!

The main theme is that our children are born with a blueprint of their personality and we are the architects. It is our job to take the plan and channel it in the right direction. This means that their nature is not something we create, nor something they have control over. Strong-willed children are born to be active researchers and information gatherers. They are not destined to be stubborn, angry, or violent adults, but the way we choose to react to their information gathering, can mold the way they use their strong-will. Strong- willed children gather information by doing experiments on our rules to see how we react. Some need to gather lots of information, others less. We can help them get their answers more quickly, by setting firm limits with effective verbal and physical communication and related consequences.

How do we learn to parent? According to Mackenzie, much of how we parent comes from our own childhood experience. We may choose to follow the same style as our parents if we found it effective or we may to choose to parent differently, but it’s still important to understand how you and your spouse were parented and how you parent. MacKenzie runs through series of questions and situations to help you decide whether you are:

Permissive: Lenient. Have rules, but it’s easy for children to beg, bargain or plead to get you to give in. Let children get by without consequences.

Punitive: Overly restrictive. Abusive verbally or physically. Long drawn out unrelated consequences.

Mixed: Go back and forth between permissive and punitive, constantly trying to make one work.

Do these styles work for strong-willed kids? Mackenzie says no. Strong-willed kids need clear firm limits, effective verbal and action messages, and consequences that are consistent, immediate, related and NOT punitive or permissive. Approaching your child’s tests this way will help them gather information and make conclusions from their research faster, and learn from the results.

One of the topics that really hit home for me was The Family Dance. Kids love the drama/power/attention they get from the Dance. They are the directors and the parents are the actors. Here’s a summary of the Family Dance: The child is jumping on the couch. The parent tells the child “You know it’s not ok to jump on the couch.” As an information gatherer the strong-willed child tests the limit by waiting until the parent turns his/her back, continuing to jump. The parent responds either (A) permissively ,“I really wish you would listen to me the first time, what did I just say?” (B) punitively, in a raised voice “What’s wrong with your ears, I told you the RULES”. The child then continues the behavior because in (A) there has either been no firm limit or in (B) no consequence set. The child follows with “Why don’t you like me to jump on the couch? It’s fun!” or some way to bait you into continuing the conversation. They want to know what you will do if they don’t stop and lead you into explaining to get a little more time to jump before you’ll act. Most parents continue to remind and explain and as a result the child will continue to test. MacKenzie says, the family dance can continue indefinitely until the parent gives the child an action step. “Stop jumping on the couch or you will have to sit on the floor.” The most important piece is that when the child inevitably jumps on the couch another time, the parent is still nearby and immediately asks the child to sit on the floor. To end the dance, you should say only what needs to be said in a clear, respectful manner, ie. not shouting.

Consequences should be immediate, consistent, related, and not punitive. In the above example the child is immediately moved to the floor if he jumps. If the parent catches the child jumping again, then the parent should stick with the punishment of moving to the floor (not being allowed to use the couch for a small amount of time as in 5-15 minutes depending on age). The parent chooses the floor as a punishment because it is a place to sit that is not the couch, making this consequence related. If the parent instead chose something like no more tv for the rest of the day, or no desert, the child would not easily make the correlation that the consequence was because of the action. In addition, dessert and tv are likely both something that brings the child joy, making this consequence punitive and causing the child to become resentful rather than learning from their test. MacKenzie says taking away TV is good consequence for not turning the volume down when asked or fighting with your sister over which show to watch, but not for jumping on the couch.

I’m a little over half way through reading now and against the recommendation of the author to wait until completion, I had a great opportunity to test one of the specific examples from the book on my own kids. In the book example, two kids were fighting over space on the couch. Our kids were fighting over space in the bath tub. Typically, I would something like, “Come on you guys, why do you always need to bicker, can’t you just get along in there?” To me this means “Stop fighting in the bath”, but I realized after reading that it doesn’t give them any clear information about what I want them to do. Instead, I said, straight from the example “If you two can’t stay on your own side of the bath, I will finish washing you and I will get you out immediately after.” I grabbed their towels so they knew I was serious and they responded by getting to their own side and then asking each other politely to hand the other the soap, wash cloth, etc. Miracle? It seemed like it, but it has continued to work in the bath and elsewhere when they’ve had trouble sharing space. I gave them a firm limit, clear message, and a related consequence. There was no dance, no backtalk, just compliance and smiles.

Our strong-willed child continues to run experiments on our limits, but I’m getting better about setting them, and the dances are getting shorter. I’m feeling positive about how far we’ve come! I’m still learning and I know I will be for some time. I look forward to finishing the book and giving you another update next month. The next chapter dives in deeper with examples and tools to create the most relevant consequences. I’m excited for this, because as I mentioned above, my favorites, TV and dessert, weren’t working very well!