Willingness Is Cooperation
When parenting a strong-willed child, be aware of the risk of crushing the child’s spirit. Instead, the task for parents is to continually work for the child’s willingness to go along with what parents want and don’t want.
Parents who set a positive, cooperative tone in the home will be rewarded with more cooperation from the child. Is cooperation modeled in the parents’ relationship? The child will copy that.
Willingness comes in two forms: going along with what parents want and refraining from doing what parents don’t want. Your job is to reward acts of willingness with appreciation, approval, affection, and praise, which are more powerful than rewards such as particular freedoms, privileges, objects, or money. While your relationship carries on, concrete rewards will soon be spent or will lose the child’s interest. Thus, your child may really want that new accessory for her computer, but she does not want it nearly as much as she wants your approval—to shine in your eyes.
Unfortunately, many parents seem most aware of willingness when they don’t get it, taking it for granted when they do. By not rewarding acts of willingness that are given, parents end up losing a chance to encourage their continuation.
Even though your nine-year-old has delayed, disputed, and dragged out your three-minute housekeeping request for over an hour before finally getting it taken care of, that doesn’t justify your treating completion with impatience: “Well, it’s about time!” Always express appreciation when willingness is given: “Thank you for getting it done.”
Keeping the Larger View in Mind
Sometimes desperate parents of a willful child, who seems to oppose them at every turn and to run totally free of their restraint, come to mistakenly believe that he never gives them any willingness at all: “He’s a wild child; he never does what we want!” This statement is emotionally true at that moment, but it is factually false because almost no child is 100 percent unwilling.
When you take for granted or ignore a child’s act of willingness, you reduce the likelihood that it will be repeated. The child does not feel that his effort is valued. “Why should I keep doing what you ask if you never appreciate what I do?” thinks the child.
At this juncture, parents need to take a time-out to let emotion subside enough for a realistic perspective to take hold. Think about it. If a child acted unwilling all the time, then parents would be without any influence. No behavior they wanted would occur, and no behavior they did not want to occur would go undone. How frightening!
The parents of this wild child are exhausted, believing their parenting is bankrupt. “We’re fighting a losing battle morning, noon, and night. Trying to get him up and ready for school each day takes everything both of us have to give. We have to argue and chase him around the house just to get him dressed, fed, homework packed for school, and in the car.” But do they thank him for getting dressed, eating breakfast, getting ready for school, and for getting in the car? No, because they feel those are things that he is supposed to do, and in fact, they may even get angry that he doesn’t do them on time. But these parents are not taking advantage of all those opportunities to reinforce the willingness they get and so encourage more of the willingness they want. And getting angry simply gives him power to arouse their emotions, power that he should not have but is probably glad to take.
In most cases, parents do not see and fully appreciate all the willingness they are being given. Take the parents in the above example. Their child behaves appropriately as a passenger in the car—not yelling, hitting, refusing to sit still, or throwing things. But why does he not behave badly? “Because we’ve taught him those kinds of behaviors make our driving unsafe,” the parents say. The parents were extremely firm and clear and consistent about what they wanted and got the desired response.
Delay is not unwillingness. It is willingness, but at the child’s pace. It is a compromise, as though the willful child were saying, “You can tell me what, but I will tell you when. And when I get enough ‘when,’ I’ll do what you want.”
And with this description, the parents have located, within all their frustrated efforts, a successful example of, and formula for, effective parenting with this strong-willed child. The next time they feel like their wild child is unmanageable, they must ask themselves, “With the current problem, are we being as firm, clear, and consistent as we need to be?”
No willful child is completely unwilling to go along with everything parents want and do not want done. If parents will take the time to calm down and rationally inventory all the kinds of willingness—given on time or after a while—that they are still being shown, they will usually find their child’s unwillingness is the exception, not the rule.