Have you ever had one of your fundamental parenting views suddenly shaken loose and flipped around? Maybe it was one you didn’t even realize you had until it was brought to light and shook up? A few years ago, this happened to me when it came to the subject of willpower.
It was 2010. I had two little rambunctious boys and was pregnant with my third baby. I was going toe-to-toe with one (or both!) of them quite often, and it was wearing me down and wearing me out. The idea of adding that third little baby to the mix was, honestly, really scary.
I don’t even think I had spent time pondering what I believed about willpower. However, if you had asked me back then, I would have told you that both of my boys were very “strong-willed.” That was the problem, after all…
One day I came across a post from Sonja Shafer on the Way of the Will. I was just browsing, not really looking for anything in particular, but her insight in this small series of articles has had a profound impact on my parenting ideology ever since.
Sonja says a lot of things in this little series, but the fundamental change in paradigm was this-
My stubborn child’s problem was that he was too strong-willed, but rather that his will was too weak.
The Battle for the Mind
Let me explain.
Let’s say you are trying out a diet. So far, you have relegated yourself to salad and water, and feel like you are doing pretty good. One afternoon, however, you decide to make brownies, telling yourself “Oh, a small taste never hurt anybody!” After mixing and pouring the creamy batter into the pan, and smelling the warm, delightful fragrance filling the room, you taste just one. Then another. Then another.
Now, if you end up eating the entire pan of brownies sitting on your counter, you wouldn’t be praising your strong willpower. Likely, you will be lamenting over your lack of self-control.
You see, the will is what governs our passions and appetites. If our will is strong, it governs well and helps us choose to do what is right even when we don’t feel like it. If our will is weak, it takes the easiest route of “I want” instead of making the right choice. ~Sonja Shafer, The Way of the Will, Part 1
Think about it: a strong will means that you do what you know you ought to do- you can carry out the right actions no matter the circumstance. You have the willpower to eat the salad and skip the desert. You have the willpower to get up early when you would rather hit the snooze button. You have the self-control to take a deep breath rather than scream. All of these things take strength, and the opposite is what we, as adults, see as weakness.
In fact, many of our character flaws as adults can be traced back to this lack of willpower or self- control.
And so it is with our children.
The Battle Your Child Should Be Fighting
Too often I think we get sucked in to fighting a battle that we aren’t really meant to fight.
We allow the battle of wills to be us against them, and in this fight they are totally focused on controlling us. (And, if we are honest, we are totally focused on controlling them.)
But the real battle -the battle that matters – has not even begun. Because this battle has been about fighting you to get their own way, they have not increased in self-control, only in mom-control.
A strong man (or woman) is one who -first and foremost- has power over himself. Strength starts not with might but with mind- and a child who learns to make himself do what he should do gains far more in the long run.
Of course we know this as adults. When we no longer have parents to cajole us into cleaning our rooms, eating healthy meals, meeting deadlines, or exercising regularly, we find ourselves face to face with the problem that we really had in the first place- ourselves. And it is not until we conquer this foe- and get him to submit to the greater good- that we can do anything of true value.
Why Breaking Your Child’s Will Is A Bad Idea
I think a lot of the time the advice around strong-willed kids is that we need to prove that our will is stronger yet, and to break their will so that they will obey.
What Sonja did for me that day was help me to see that I was really not supposed to be battling head to head with my little guy, proving that my will was stronger than his will.
Instead, my focus needed to be turned from winning the battle, to helping him win the battle.
Of course, helping him win the battle is not the same thing as giving in to his tyranny. No, giving in to their misplaced desires doesn’t make them stronger, just as you allowing yourself to eat that entire pan of brownies has not made you any stronger.
I needed to become his coach to help strengthen his will, and to help him re-direct it, so he will be strong enough to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.
Our kids need to be stronger.
Strong enough to resist temptation, to control their words and their minds (and teeth!) in the face of anger. Strong enough to share when they don’t want to, to say please and thank you and sorry when it’s appropriate. Strong enough to endure exhaustion, overwhelm and frustration while standing upright rather than sprawled in a loud, tangled mess on the floor.
In short, strong enough to do the right thing in spite of their own desires.
Not by fighting you, but by strengthening their own weak will.
In the end, what we really want, is truly strong-willed kids.
So, have you ever thought about your battles with your kids in this way? It was totally a game-changer for me.
I think when my guys were at this stage I was worried about them learning their letters and holding pencils properly, how to get them to say “yellow” instead of “yewoh,” and cutting straight lines. Willpower wasn’t even on my radar.
Willpower wasn’t the kind of thing that could be check-boxed, like, say, “learning the letter a,” but I started to see it was super important. In fact, when I thought about it in light of my own struggles as an adult, it became- perhaps- just as important as those things that could be checked off a list.