Willful children speak their mind. They describe their feelings. They express their needs and wants. They state their opinions. They ask questions. They confront differences. And they protect their “rights,” willing to object to treatment that they consider unfair. They speak up and declare what matters to them.
Children who will speak up to a parent about what they dislike or want changed are more likely to be able to speak up to peers and resist peer pressure than children who always stay quiet and act compliant at home, no questions asked and no objections raised.
Teaching Appropriate Declarative Language
When speaking up does not accomplish what they intensely want, it is tempting for willful children to amplify their communication with yelling or to use harsh language to get their way: “You’re being dumb not to let me go! You’re acting stupid! I hate you!” At this point, parents must set aside discussion of what the child wants and address the tone and content of language being used. The child is declaring himself, but doing so in a destructive way.
Old-fashioned good manners go a long way at any age. Children may need to be taught particular phrases and gracious tones of voice. Model them in your home, and they will copy you.
So when your willful child, having declared a want and been denied, resorts to name-calling (“dumb,” “stupid”) and then uses the word “hate,” immediately set the issue at difference aside and declare that language unacceptable and not allowed. “If you are disappointed or frustrated because of my decision, you can say so, and I will listen. You can say you are very angry with me, but you cannot say you hate me. We don’t allow that kind of language in the family. And I will not be called hurtful names just because you are not getting your way. I don’t call you bad names and I don’t want you doing that to me.” Because willful children tend to speak up so strongly to a parent, they must be taught to do so in acceptable ways.
The Willful Refusal to Declare
Although as a rule willful children are strongly declarative, there can come a time when they are strongly not. For example, the rebellious twelve-year-old may go on strike against telling parents about anything that is going on his life in order to keep them away from what he doesn’t want them to know. He may think, “Freedom comes from keeping my parents in the dark.”
In frustration at being shut out of their child’s life, and whatever is going on, the parents complain, “He won’t talk to us and there’s nothing we can do!” Wrong! Parents can hold their son accountable for refusing to communicate with them. They can confront him with the consequences of refusing to be his usual declarative self.
They can say, “Of course, whether you talk to us or not is entirely up to you. You have the right not to communicate. However, we need to let you know the consequences of that choice. First, in our ignorance, we will come to our own understandings of what may be going on, understandings that may be false and that you may not agree with. And second, based on those understandings, we may make decisions about what you must and cannot do that you do not like. For example, if we conclude that your sullen attitude is due to taking drugs, we may decide to restrict your social life and increase your work around the house to help you get straightened out. If, however, you want to tell us what is going on and influence our decisions with helpful discussion, then you can choose to communicate with us. As we said, it’s up to you.”