To be an effective parent, it is important to understand how willfulness can be grounded in a child’s tendency to resort to one-step thinking when he becomes impatient or frustrated. Children are born one-step thinkers. That is, at birth, they are ruled by want, impulse, and instant gratification. This is how they are equipped to identify what they need and to let you know what they desire. So when an infant fusses or cries or calls or grabs, these are all one-step attempts to cope with whatever the child would like to start or stop happening.
As parents learn to read these nonverbal signals, figure out and respond to what the child wants, the child develops a sense of effectiveness. When crying repeatedly results in being held, then the child learns that one possible outcome of crying is getting picked up. So one-step thinking works. For the time being, the child’s actions are rewarded.
However, parents can’t just let a child grow up managing his likes and dislikes with one-step thinking. Eventually everyone, children included, has to learn delayed gratification. It is simply a requirement to get along in civilized society. Without the skill of delayed gratification the child painfully learns that other people will often resist the child’s demands for accommodation.
Teach your strong-willed child some delayed gratification—delaying action long enough to consult judgment, reason, and values before acting on impulse, on feelings, and for immediate gratification. It is the capacity for this more mature type of thinking that allows the child to discipline his willful nature so that it serves him well and not badly.
As the child grows up, parents begin to encourage two-step thinking. They do this by teaching the child to delay action until he has taken the time to think about past and possible future consequences of an action before making a decision. “Before you spend all your money on a treat right now, you might want to think about what saving this money could allow you to buy later.” Following this advice, the child takes the time to think twice, asking himself if what he wants is really worth having right now. The second step of two-step thinking is assessing past and possible consequences and consulting judgment, reason, and values before deciding how to act. Your child will need help with this process.
One-Step Thinking Affects Willfulness
Full of themselves and insisting on what they want, strong-willed children’s tendency to be impulsive works to their detriment.
“I don’t care if it’s yours, I want it!” (The child will get into trouble at school for taking what doesn’t belong to him.) “Nobody can tell me what to do!” (The child defies adult authority only to get hurt by ignoring a safety rule.) “It’s my way or no way!” (The child’s friend is discouraged from coming over to play again, since all play has to be on the host’s terms.) These types of statements reflect strong will and shortsightedness, and they lead to unhappy outcomes. Your child will be unable to have and keep friends.
Teach your willful child to think twice. Having already claimed the power of personal choice at a young age, every child must be taught to delay, think, consider past and possible consequences, and use some judgment to moderate a tendency to indulge impulsive choice. “I know what you want to do, but stop and think and ask yourself what is wise and right to do.”
Parents and One-Step Thinking
A large part of what any child learns about how to behave is through imitation. The parents are the most powerful role models in a child’s life. Thus, if parents act on impulse, emotion, and make demands, children learn this is the way to get their needs met. Yelling at a child to stop yelling only encourages him to yell some more. Hitting a child to stop him from hitting a younger sibling only teaches him that, if you’re bigger, hitting is okay.
Although growing up is hard for children, acting maturely can be equally challenging for adults. An immature outburst, such as, “I’ll show you who’s boss!” isn’t helpful as an example. The most powerful way to teach a child to become a calm, modulated person is to be one yourself. Constantly envision yourself in that way, and it’s easier to realize.
One measure of adult maturity is a parent’s capacity to maintain two-step thinking in the face of a child’s one-step provocation. There has to be a grownup present in the family dynamic, even if the child is horribly acting out.