You will never, ever hear me say, “If the child is hungry, he will eat.” While this may be true of most children, this is rarely true of a strong-willed child. How do I know? Because I had one. Well, I have one, but now he is an adult. And even as an adult he does not often enjoy eating. But I digress.
When a child is strong-willed, it means he will always have a hill he is willing to die on. It does not matter if that hill is illogical. It does not matter if that hill is big or small. Sometimes, it does not even matter if that hill is potentially harmful, physically or otherwise. If the child has decided this is where he is making his last stand, then that is where he will plant himself. He will plant himself like a rooted tree. He will plant himself like a light post in cement. He will plant himself and he will not budge one inch until he is good and ready to budge.
When my son was 10 months old, he clamped his mouth shut and refused to eat. He planted himself that day and the next 3-4 years were a constant, daily battle between him and me over eating food. It did not matter to him that not eating was actually harmful. He had made up his mind and there was nothing I could say or do that was going to change his mind.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking this blog is about eating struggles. I only use the eating struggle with my son to highlight what it is like to parent a strong-willed child. You can insert whatever your daily battle with your strong-willed child might be into the scenario I am sharing about my son.
Notice that the term strong-willed begins with the adjective strong. The adjective strong can be positive or negative. We rarely become concerned with the adjective strong when it is used in the positive. It is when the adjective strong is used in its negative connotation that our feathers get ruffled. In the early years of parenting, a strong-willed child’s behavior is usually referring to the negative kind of strong. So what is a parent to do with that strong will? What did I do with a ten-month-old that refused to eat?
- You, the adult, need to decide if this hill is worth dying on. It will always be worth dying on for the child, but is it for you? Hint: Not every hill is worth the battle. In my situation it was worth the battle, because eating is vital to life. That meant my child brought on a battle that I had no choice but to fight. How about you? Is there a battle that you need to fight?
- Once you have decided to take on the fight, it is time to learn how to plant yourself just a deeply as your child did. Find those roots, Mama. Water them and keep them healthy and strong, for the battle may be long and hard. My battle was about 3-4 years long. I had to root myself in prayer, the support of my husband, and advice from like-minded friends. I am not sure I could have won the battle, much less survived it, without these deep roots. What roots do you need to plant?
- Decide where the line is. For me the line was not just keeping my son alive but keeping him healthy too. When he was one and only willing to eat oatmeal, peanut butter, crackers, and milk; that was where I had to stand. He was given the food he would eat because that kept him healthy (his pediatrician even said so), and we worked on submissive behavior in other areas of his life. For those of you who think he would have eaten if I only gave him other foods, I can confidently tell you that he would not have done so. Believe me, we tried. Strong-willed children do not work that way. It is not about the food. It is about the battle and they will fight to win it every time. Keep this in mind with your own strong-willed battle. It is not about the object of the battle. It is about the battle itself.
- Keep your eye on the prize. The purpose of fighting a battle with a strong-willed child is not to prove yourself right. I did not fight my son so that he would eat any food given to him. I fought the battle because he needed to learn that I was the parent and he was the child. He needed to learn that eating what you’re given is an act of submission, acceptance, and gratefulness. He needed to learn that there is value in eating and there is value in eating foods that you do not want to eat. If you are only trying to prove yourself correct in your fight with your strong-willed child, you have already lost. It is not about you being right and him being wrong. It is about him being willing to submit to your parental authority. I know, I just said that dreaded “s” word. It is not an ugly word. It is a word that brings order to a child’s life and to the family. It is a word that allows your child to one day be a productive, functioning member of society that plays well with others. It is a word that shows honor to others. What behaviors does your child struggle with that you need to help him submit to your authority?
Parenting a strong-will child takes work. It takes guts. It takes tears. It takes long days. It takes even longer nights. While I would never want to relive the eating battle with my toddler son, I treasure the memory of the day he sat at the dinner table and ate what he was given. My joy is not because he ate the food. It is because he was willing to eat the food. It may seem that I won the battle, but in reality he won the battle. He won the battle to surrender his strong will in the negative sense, and embraced his strong will in the positive sense. It is about the battle, the battle to be strong for good.
Tricia McDonald is the wife of SGM(ret) McDonald and four adult children. She is learning to adjust to civilian life now that her husband has retired. She is also learning to adjust to life without homeschooling, as all of her children have graduated. Tricia volunteers her time teaching U.S. History to local homeschooled high schoolers, and coordinating music for a local semi-professional youth theatre. She enjoys blogging from time and time and is trying to figure out what she should be when she grows up. She wants to encourage all the young moms to hang in there and enjoy the moments, as they will pass far more quickly than you ever thought possible.