Raising Strong-Willed Children

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I homeschool my children using the Montessori method and materials. My son, who is about to turn seven, is doing second grade work. My daughter, who is 3 ½ , is enjoying all the materials of the 3-6 level classroom. You might think that things are easy for me, since I am Montessori certified and my children have been in a Montessori-style environment since birth. That, however, is not the case.

God, in his wisdom, has seen fit to give me children much like I am – curious, questioning, talkative, challenging, and strong-willed. Yes, my parents are chuckling to themselves every time they come and visit. When I was younger, I did speculate that I might get a chance to see what it was like to raise me as a child. And now I am!

Don’t get me wrong; my children are delightful. They are funny, smart, and bring me joy every day. When I am sitting on the couch reading to them, their warm little bodies snuggled against mine, I have absolutely no doubts that at that moment, that’s where I’m supposed to be. I love seeing the progress they make, firsthand, as they move through the Montessori materials.

However, my daughter in particular has been quite a challenge. She is very headstrong and fiercely independent. My son has never thrown a tantrum – that’s just not his style – but she has thrown many. I have followed all the disciplinary advice I’ve read about all these years in Montessori: I’ve been consistent, implemented immediate consequences, talked to her about ground rules during peaceful moments, not given into her tantrums, and many other things. I have read many books about discipline and strong-willed children, and learned quite a bit. Still, at this stage she feels like a hearty scream is the best way to express herself when she doesn’t get her way.

Many times, I see two pieces of parenting advice in both Montessori and non-Montessori literature: say “yes” as often as you can, and give children choices as often as you can. I have done that with both children, and the results have been decidedly mixed. In some ways, these techniques can backfire. Giving children choices and saying “yes” frequently helps to avoid many confrontations. It gives them a feeling of being in charge of something, and it helps them sharpen their decision-making skills.

With my children, though, another result seems to be that they always expect to be able to make choices – and deal with it poorly when they can’t. They usually expect to hear “yes”, and do not handle it well when they hear “no”. I have read more than one blog post – critical of Montessori – that mentions how headstrong and obstinate Montessori children are. While my first instinct is to rush immediately to the defense of the Montessori method, I have to admit that I’ve experienced that inflexibility firsthand, and not just as a parent but as a teacher, too.

As I look back on my own childhood, I was not happy much of the time once I reached school age. I was extremely strong-willed, and my parents really didn’t know what to do with me. I was smarter than my teachers and I knew it. I was off the charts on standardized tests and intelligence tests, but the private school I attended refused to let gifted students skip a grade, and had no gifted program. I have often wondered what my parents and teachers could have done differently so that I could have enjoyed school more. I could tell that everyone was frustrated with me, and it wreaked havoc on my self-esteem. (Picture: me around age four. Aww!)

In reflecting back on my childhood, I’ve also tried to figure out if there was anything that anyone could have told me to help me reign in my strong-willed tendencies. Sure, adults tried to talk to me about my behavior, but I pretty much ignored everything they told me. Only one teacher really got through to me, and one reason is because she was a lot like me so she was speaking from experience. The other reason I listened to her is because I could tell that she liked me even though she was disappointed with my attitude. That made all the difference in the world.

Because of my experiences, I am able to identify all too closely with my own children. I understand their frustration at being told what to do by an adult, because I felt it all the time. I try to talk to them and say the words I wish someone had said to me, but I don’t know if I’m really reaching them. The only thing that cured my dislike of being told what to do was becoming a grown-up. I fear that they may have to wait that long too.

I can see that Montessori, while sometimes giving children more latitude than they may be able to handle, is still a wonderful way to work with strong-willed children. I notice that when my kids are able to make their own work choices, they are much more interested and excited by learning than I ever was. The flexible curriculum gives me a chance to challenge them in an individual way. We love learning together.

Re-reading this post, I feel like it might be too much information, as they say. I was going to write about 3-6 work, and then this topic came bubbling to the surface instead. I would love to hear from all of you – I know that many of you have (and were yourselves) strong-willed children. What do you do? How do you cope? And how does Montessori play into the shaping of a strong-willed child? Please share.

I’ve found some books that have been very helpful in understanding the dynamics in our home; here are a few:

Good Kids, Bad Behavior by Peter Williamson

Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert J. Mackenzie

The New Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson