When my second child was born, I thought I had adequately prepared myself for what was to come. My first born was a high-needs baby — prematurity, colic, sensory needs, and plenty of sensory-related sleep issues made his babyhood truly challenging for me, a brand-new mom. As a result of all of those atypical struggles, I grew confident in my abilities to mother another baby. I knew whatever came my way, I could handle it with grace and gumption.
As chance would have it, my second baby, another boy, turned out to be one of those sweet, happy babies I’d always seen around while endlessly bouncing or strolling or rocking my inconsolable first born. This baby was content playing on his own; endlessly charmed by his extra-excited older brother; and ate, slept, and traveled better than most adults I know. I was simultaneously shocked and relieved.
Being an early childhood special educator, I was admittedly unfazed by the impending toddler phase. After all, not only did I already have one of those, this age was my specialty – what I had gone to school for, studied endlessly, and did as a living. But, when my precious baby entered his toddlerhood, I was hit with the emergence of a personality so strong-willed and stubborn, that every single behavioral strategy I had learned while in graduate school was rendered useless.
I have to be honest. Parenting him is tough. For every aspect of his babyhood he’s held on to – his loving nature, his sense of humor, and charm, his stoic yet lighthearted spirit – there’s a counterpart to match. He is determined. He is fiery. When his feet are planted firmly on the ground regarding any issue, he will not budge, and no amount of redirection or discipline or bribery is enough to change it.
But, when my precious baby entered his toddlerhood, I was hit with the emergence of a personality so strong-willed and stubborn, that every single behavioral strategy I had learned while in graduate school was rendered useless.
It’s not that he’s a difficult child, by any means. He’s sweet and considerate. He loves helping around the house. He makes me laugh constantly. He notices sounds and sights that would be overlooked by nearly anyone else. He spends hours each day cooking pretend meals and painting quietly on his own. He’s creative and passionate and joyful. But, when he disagrees, he is the most headstrong person I’ve ever known. He’s spirited, resistant, and extremely particular. He does not want to comply just for the hell of it – each step of the process, each moment of his day, each action he takes needs to make sense to him. He needs to feel that he is doing the right thing all the time.
As a parent, this can be entirely frustrating and exhausting to deal with on a constant basis. Every single part of the day has the potential to develop in some sort of struggle, many of which result in my carrying my sweet, passionate boy from place to place while he kicks and screams. And, when I see other 3-year-olds out and about, eager to please, attending well, willing to wait, and behaving in a generally easygoing manner, I’ll admit, it’s hard to fight the internal pangs that say I’m doing something wrong.
But, knowing what I know about the development of persona and how personality traits impact adult life, I’m happy to have this guy on my hands.
A recent study that spanned the course of over 40 years found that children who break the rules frequently or otherwise defy their parents and other authorities go on to become over-achievers later in life. There are many theories as to why this happens, some of which are that children with these personalities might be more competitive in the classroom, might be more demanding adults with a better ability to negotiate, or they might be more willing to fight for their own interests, even at the risk of annoying others (that last one is already true, from my experience). The connections between defiance and success, though not quite clear, tell me one thing: the same traits I struggle to parent in him right now are the ones that will shape his future.
As a parent, if I can remain sensitive to my little guy’s personality and spirit, his self-motivated and inner-directed nature will allow to him to go after what he wants while remaining resistant to incoming peer pressure. As long as I can guide him appropriately, my strong-willed kid has the potential to become an independent thinker and leader. And all of those things that drive me to the brink of crazy now will be the same things that propel him forward later in life. Here’s why.
1. He says “NO” firmly and often
I never thought I’d be so happy to have a little guy who says “no” so much, but when I think about how that trait will serve him in the future, I’m glad it’s one that he has. As a self-admitted people-pleaser, I’m definitely more inclined to say yes to nearly anything – extra work, extra plans, extra responsibility, extra clients I don’t necessarily have time for. My son does not seem to have this same internal struggle and need to appease.
Sure, he does say “no” a lot at inappropriate times or places, but his intent is always the same – he doesn’t want to do what he doesn’t want to do. Of course, that’s not always possible. But, when I ask him for a hug and he says “no, thank you,” I can’t help but feel proud that I am setting him up to feel confident that he has complete autonomy over his own body and his own life. I am still learning how to say “no” firmly and directly, without the need for explanation or apology, and this is a skill he already has.
2. He is fiercely independent
I can’t tell you how many play dates we’ve been to where my little guy has played on his own, in his own space, at a generous distance from whomever he was supposed to be playing with. In fact, when he started going to preschool, an entire calendar year went by before he uttered even a word to his teachers. I used to find it embarrassing and I’d tried to coax him gently to interact and play and chat (bless his sweet, patient teachers who supported and encouraged him – and me!– to let him be who he is), but he is completely happy on his own. And, you know what? That’s not a bad thing.
Being content while alone with your thoughts and ideas, entertaining yourself with the natural environment around you, and living in moments of silence are all extremely complex ways of being. Most adults I know, myself included, struggle with these things on a daily basis (hi, smartphone and background TV to fill idle time and silence). He likes to be alone, and in a culture that celebrates outgoing personalities and social gatherings, it can be hard to parent a child who is naturally quiet and keeps to himself. As a child, I was the same way and constantly felt societal pressure to be more outgoing and social in order to fit in.
As a parent, I want to make sure I celebrate him just the way he is.
3. He has conviction and drive
Sure, you could say “stubborn” and “difficult” (and I do, often), but my strong-willed kid could also be seen as a tiny person with integrity who doesn’t easily waver from his viewpoint. He’s brave and courageous, and he needs to learn things for himself. He pushes boundaries over and over to see when they will give and when they will stand firm. He has big, passionate feelings and doesn’t shy from sharing them. And when his heart is set on something, his mind has a hard time switching over.
What I’ve learned is that if I need him to change course, I need to support him instead of trying to force him. There is no amount of force that can get him to acquiesce. In fact, that just increases his resistance because his integrity tells him to hold strong in the face of a perceived “threat.” But, if I support him, empathize, and connect with him, I can usually get him to wave a white flag, even just temporarily. His relationship with me is important enough to give just a little, and my relationship with him is important enough to try to connect and communicate even in the face of extreme frustration.
And, I have to believe that if he fights so hard for himself, that with the right guidance, he will grow to fight for others the same way.
4. He does not go with the flow
As the adult, this trait frustrates me endlessly each day, but it’s also something about him that I admire greatly. It takes guts to go against the grain, to stand for something (even if that something is insisting on wearing sandals out in the snow), to not back down. When I think about what I want my children to learn and who I want them to be, being obedient is not really something for which I wish my children to strive.
I want them to be moral beings – to do what’s right, not what they’re told. To support them on this journey, I need to listen to them, hear them, respect their feelings and choices (when appropriate and not a matter of safety or potential harm). I need to believe that they will use judgment, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. And, I need to build a relationship with them based on love and security and respect, so when the matter is serious and I offer my input, they will trust that I have their best interest at heart.
5. He has visceral gut reactions
One thing I learned from teaching young children for so many years is that intuition (or gut instinct) is very difficult to re-learn after it’s been lost. Babies are born with these gut instincts — they don’t just blindly swallow information. But, often as parents, we override their abilities to trust their own instincts with our own impressions of what they should feel or how they should behave. It’s hardly ever done intentionally – parents just want to protect their babies. But, what we often forget is that one day, sooner than we’d like to admit, our babies will need to protect themselves. And for them to be able to do that, we need to nurture their natural intuition.
My littlest guy is a fireball, yes. He has strong intuition. When he disagrees, he does so in a fast and furious manner (I’m sure our neighbors would back me up on this). He’s loud and emotional and, yeah, instinctive. What this tells me is that his gut is telling him that something is awry. Now, whether or not that is actually true or not is not important – it’s not his responsibility to know what’s best or appropriate. He’s only three. It’s my responsibility to not only see through the fire to the root of the conflict and help him work through it, but also to nurture his instincts in a way that makes him feel secure and heard so that he builds trust in himself and his innate reactions.
I have to reinforce that I will never fault him for attempting to protect himself, that I will support and nurture his sense of self, and that I will help him learn where and how he could’ve made different choices. I have to not always give him the answer or do things for him. I have to help him to trust his judgment, rather than be swayed by outside influences. Consequences for bad choices can always be upheld, but intuition is hard to teach.
Knowing that I am always there for him will allow him to trust himself.