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220 pages
Jul 2004
Tyndale House Publishers

The New Strong-Willed Child

by Dr. James Dobson

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



AT ONE TIME, the Dobson household consisted of a mother and a father, a boy and a girl, one hamster, one parakeet, one lonely goldfish, and two hopelessly neurotic cats. We all lived together in relative harmony with a minimum of conflict and strife. But there was another member of our family who was less congenial and cooperative. He was a stubborn, twelve-pound dachshund named Sigmund Freud (Siggie), who honestly believed that he owned the place. All dachshunds tend to be independent, I’m told, but Siggie was a confirmed revolutionary. He was not vicious or mean; he just wanted to run things—and the two of us engaged in a power struggle throughout his lifetime.

Siggie was not only stubborn, but he wouldn’t pull his own weight in the family. He wouldn’t bring in the newspaper on cold mornings; he refused to chase a ball for the children; he didn’t keep the gophers out of the garden; and he didn’t do any of the usual tricks that most cultured dogs perform. Alas, Siggie refused to engage in any of the self-improvement programs that I initiated on his behalf. He was content just to trot through life, watering and sniffing and barking at everything that moved.

Sigmund was not even a good watchdog. This fact was confirmed the night we were visited by a prowler who entered our backyard at three o’clock in the morning. I suddenly awoke from a deep sleep, got out of bed, and felt my way through the house without turning on the lights. I knew someone was on the patio and Siggie knew it too, because the coward was crouched behind me! After listening to the thumping of my heart for a few minutes, I reached out to take hold of the rear doorknob. At that moment, the backyard gate quietly opened and closed. Someone had been standing three feet from me and that someone was now tinkering in my garage. Siggie and I held a little conversation in the darkness and decided that he should be the one to investigate the disturbance. I opened the back door and ordered my dog to “Attack!” But Siggie had just had one! He stood there throbbing and shaking so badly that I couldn’t even push him out the back door. In the noise and confusion that ensued, the intruder escaped (which pleased both dog and man).

Please don’t misunderstand me: Siggie was a member of our family and we loved him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I did finally teach him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority. The greatest confrontation occurred when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn’t realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as captain.

At eleven o’clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which was a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years, I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed. On that occasion, however, he refused to budge. He was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That was his favorite spot in the house, because it allowed him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater. Incidentally, Siggie had to learn the hard way that it was extremely important that the lid be down before he left the ground. I’ll never forget the night he learned that lesson. He came thundering in from the cold and sailed through the air—and nearly drowned before I could get him out.

On the night of our great battle, I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed. Instead, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie’s way of saying, “Get lost!” I had seen this defiant mood before and knew that I had to deal with it. The only way to make Siggie obey was to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else worked. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me “reason” with ’ol Sig. My wife, who was watching this drama unfold, told me that as soon as I left the room, Siggie jumped from his perch and looked down the hall to see where I had gone. Then he got behind her and growled.

When I returned, I held up the belt and again told the angry dog to get into his bed. He stood his ground so I gave him a firm swat across the rear end, and he tried to bite the belt. I popped him again and he tried to bite me. What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling. I amstill embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie jumped on the couch and backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him into his bed, but only because I outweighed him two hundred to twelve!

The following night I expected another siege of combat at Siggie’s bedtime. To my surprise, however, he accepted my command without debate or complaint and simply trotted toward the family room in perfect submission. In fact, Siggie and I never had another “go for broke” stand. It is clear to me now that Siggie was saying on the first night, in his canine way, “I don’t think you’re tough enough to make me obey.” Perhaps I seem to be humanizing the behavior of a dog, but I think not. Veterinarians will confirm that some breeds of dogs, notably dachshunds and shepherds, will not accept the leadership of their masters until human authority has stood the test of fire and proved itself worthy. I got that message across to Siggie in one decisive encounter, and we were good friends for the rest of his life.

This is not a book about the discipline of dogs. But there is an important aspect of my story that is highly relevant to the world of children. Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, a child is inclined to do the same thing, only more so. This is no minor observation, for it represents a characteristic of human nature that has escaped the awareness of many experts who write books on the subject of discipline. When I wrote twenty-five years ago, there was hardly a text for parents or teachers that adequately acknowledged the struggle—the confrontation of wills—that strong-willed children seem to love. For them, adult leadership is rarely accepted unchallenged; it must be tested and found worthy before it is respected. It is one of the frustrating aspects of child rearing that most parents have to discover for themselves.


But why do some children, particularly those who are strong-willed, have such a pugnacious temperament? One of the simplistic answers (there is a more complete explanation in chapter 3) is that it reflects the admiration boys and girls have for strength and courage. They will occasionally disobey parental instructions for the precise purpose of testing the determination of those in charge. Why? Because they care deeply about the issue of “who’s toughest.” This helps explain the popularity of superheroes—Robin Hood and Tarzan and Spider-Man and Superman—in the folklore of children. It also explains why they often brag, “My dad can beat up your dad!” (One child said in response, “That’s nothing, my mom can beat up my dad too!”)

Whenever a youngster moves into a new neighborhood or a new school district, he usually has to fight (either verbally or physically) to establish himself in the hierarchy of strength. This respect for power and courage also makes children want to know how tough their leaders are. Thus, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, a Scout leader, a bus driver, or a schoolteacher, I can guarantee that sooner or later, one of the children under your authority will clench his little fist and take you on. Like Siggie at bedtime, he will say with his manner: “I don’t think you are tough enough to make me obey.” You had better be prepared to prove him wrong in that moment, or the challenge will happen again and again.

This defiant game, which I call Challenge the Chief, can be played with surprising skill by very young children. A father told me of taking his three-year-old daughter to a basketball game. The child was, of course, interested in everything in the gym except the athletic contest. Dad permitted her to roam free and climb on the bleachers, but he set definite limits regarding how far she could stray. He took her by the hand and walked with her to a stripe painted on the gym floor. “You can play all around the building, Janie, but don’t go past this line,” he instructed her. He had no sooner returned to his seat than the toddler scurried in the direction of the forbidden territory. She stopped at the border for a moment, then flashed a grin over her shoulder to her father, and deliberately placed one foot over the line as if to say, “Whatcha gonna do about it?” Virtually every parent the world over has been asked the same question at one time or another.

The entire human race is afflicted with the same tendency toward willful defiance that this three-year-old exhibited. Her behavior in the gym is not so different from the folly of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had told them they could eat anything in the Garden except the forbidden fruit (“do not go past this line”). Yet they challenged the authority of the Almighty by deliberately disobeying His commandment. Perhaps this tendency toward self-will is the essence of original sin that has infiltrated the human family. It certainly explains why I place such stress on the proper response to willful defiance during childhood, for that rebellion can plant the seeds of personal disaster. The weed that grows from it may become a tangled briar patch during the troubled days of adolescence.

When a parent refuses to accept his child’s defiant challenge, something changes in their relationship. The youngster begins to look at his mother and father with disrespect; they are unworthy of her allegiance. More important, she wonders why they would let her do such harmful things if they really loved her. The ultimate paradox of childhood is that boys and girls want to be led by their parents but insist that their mothers and fathers earn the right to lead them.

On behalf of those readers who have never experienced such a confrontation, let me describe how a determined kid is typically constructed. At birth he looks deceptively like his more compliant sibling. He weighs seven pounds and is totally dependent on those who care for him. Indeed, he would not survive for more than a day or two without their attention. Ineffectual little arms and legs dangle aimlessly in four directions, appearing to be God’s afterthoughts. What a picture of vulnerability and innocence he is!

Isn’t it amazing, given this beginning, what happens in twenty short months? Junior then weighs twenty-five pounds and he’s itching for action. This kid who couldn’t even hold his own bottle less than two years earlier now has the gall to look his two-hundred-pound father straight in the kisser and tell him where to get off? What audacity! Obviously, there is something deep within his soul that longs for control. He will work at achieving it for the rest of his life.

When our children were young, we lived near one of these little spitfires. He was thirty-six months old at the time and had already bewildered and overwhelmed his mother. The contest of wills was over. He had won it. His sassy talk, to his mother and anyone else who got in his way, was legendary in the neighborhood. Then one day my wife watched him ride his tricycle down the driveway and into the street, which panicked his mother. We lived on a curve and the cars came around that bend at high speed. The woman rushed out of the house and caught up with her son as he pedaled down the street. She took hold of his handlebars to redirect him, and he came unglued.

“Get your dirty hands off my tricycle!” he screamed. His eyes were squinted in fury. As Shirley watched in disbelief, this woman did as she was told. The life of her child was in danger, yet this mother did not have the courage to make him obey her. He continued to ride down the street while she trailed along behind, hoping for the best. How could it be that a tiny little boy at three years of age was able to buffalo his thirty-year-old mother in this way? Clearly, she had no idea how to manage him. He was simply tougher than she—and they both knew it. This mild-mannered woman had produced an iron-willed youngster who was willing to fight with anyone who tried to run him in, and you can be sure that his mom’s physical and emotional resources were continually drained by his antics. We lost track of this family, but I’m sure this kid’s adolescent years were something to behold.


In thinking about the characteristics of compliant and defiant children, I sought an illustration to explain the vastly differing thrusts of human temperaments. I found an appropriate analogy in a supermarket. Imagine yourself in a grocery store, pushing a cart up the aisle. You give the basket a small shove, and it glides at least nine feet out in front and then comes to a gradual stop. You walk along happily tossing in the soup and ketchup and loaves of bread. Grocery shopping is such an easy task, for even when the cart is burdened with goods, it can be directed with one finger.

But buying groceries is not always so blissful. On other occasions, you select a cart that ominously awaits your arrival at the front of the market. When you push the stupid thing forward, it tears off to the left and knocks over a stack of bottles. Refusing to be outmuscled by an empty cart, you throw all your weight behind the handle, fighting desperately to keep the ship on course. It seems to have a mind of its own as it darts toward the eggs and careens back in the direction of a terrified grandmother in green tennis shoes. You are trying to do the same shopping assignment that you accomplished with ease the week before, but the job feels more like combat duty today. You are exhausted by the time you herd the contumacious cart toward the checkout counter.

What is the difference between the two shopping baskets? Obviously, one has straight, well-oiled wheels that go where they are guided. The other has crooked, bent wheels that refuse to yield. Do you get the point? We might as well face it; some kids have crooked wheels! They do not want to go where they are led, because their own inclinations take them in other directions. Furthermore, the parent who is pushing the cart must expend seven times the energy to make it move, compared with the parent of a child with straight wheels. (Only mothers and fathers of strongwilled children will fully comprehend the meaning of this illustration.)

But how is the strength of the will distributed among children? My original assumption was that this aspect of human temperament is represented by a typical bell-shaped curve. In other words, I presumed that a relatively small number of very compliant kids appeared at one end of the continuum and an equally small number of defiant youngsters were represented at the other. The rest, comprising the majority, were likely to fall somewhere near the middle of the distribution, like this: (bell curve diagram)

However, having talked to at least 100,000 harried parents, I’m convinced that my supposition was wrong. The true distribution probably looks more like this: (upward linear graph)

Don’t take this observation too literally. Maybe it only seems that the majority of toddlers are confirmed anarchists. Furthermore, there is a related phenomenon regarding sibling relationships that I have never been able to explain. When there are two children in the family, one is likely to be compliant and the other defiant. Who knows why it works out that way. There they are, born to the same parents, but as different as though they came from different planets. One cuddles to your embrace and the other kicks you in the navel. One is a natural sweetheart and the other goes through life like hot lava. One follows orders and the other gives them.

Quite obviously, they are marching to a different set of drums. Former U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt was clearly a strong-willed child and grew up to be a very strong-willed man. When he was a boy, he once strung a string across the top of the stairs where it could not be seen. Predictably, his nurse came along carrying a supper tray and tripped, making what must have been a spectacular plunge downward. The record does not reveal what punishment he received for this wicked trick. We are told, however, that Franklin was very bossy with his peers and that he liked to win at everything. When he was once scolded for the way he treated other children, he said, “Mummie, if I didn’t give the orders, nothing would happen.”1 That is a strong-willed child.

Temperamental differences often create serious relational problems within the family. The strong-willed child faces constant discipline and is subjected to many threats and finger-wagging lectures, while his angelic brother, little Goody Two-shoes, polishes his halo and soaks up the warmth of parental approval. They are pitted against each other by the nature of their divergent personalities and may spend a lifetime scratching and clawing one another. (Chapter 9 offers specific suggestions regarding the problem of sibling rivalry and conflict.)

I have described the approach to life taken by the tougher kids. Let’s look quickly at the easygoing child, who spends most of his time trying to make his parents happy. In reality, he needs their praise and approval; thus his personality is greatly influenced by this desire to gain their affection and recognition. A word of displeasure or even the slightest frown from his parents can disturb him. He is a lover, not a fighter.

A few years ago I talked with the mother of one of these pleasant kids. She was concerned about the difficulties her son was having in nursery school. He was being bullied every day by the more aggressive children, but it was not within him to defend himself. Thus, each afternoon when his mother came to get him, he had been whacked and harassed again by these other boys. Even the girls were joining in the fun.

“You must defend yourself!” his mother said again and again. “Those other children will keep hitting you until you make them stop!”

Each day she urged her little lover to be more assertive, but it contradicted his nature to do so. Finally, his frustration became so great that he began reaching for the courage to follow his mother’s advice. As they rode to school one morning he said, “Mom! If those kids pick on me again today, I’m—I’m—I’m going to beat them up! Slightly.”

How does one beat up someone else “slightly”? I don’t know, but it made perfect sense to this compliant child. He didn’t want to use any more force than was absolutely necessary to survive. Why? Because he had a peace-loving nature. His parents didn’t teach it to him. It was rooted deep within his psyche.

I must make it clear that the compliant child is not necessarily wimpy or spineless. That fact is very important to our understanding of his nature and how he differs from his strong-willed sibling. The distinction between them is not a matter of confidence, willingness to take risks, sparkling personalities, or other desirable characteristics. Rather, the issue under consideration here is focused on the strength of the will—on the inclination of some children to resist authority and determine their own course, as compared with those who are willing to be led. It is my supposition that these temperaments are prepackaged before birth and do not have to be cultivated or encouraged. They will make themselves known soon enough.

By the way, there is another category of temperaments in children that some parents will recognize instantly. These kids are not really strong-willed—at least, their assertiveness is not expressed in the same way. The distinction here is not one of independence and aggressiveness. It is a matter of tactics. They rarely challenge the authority of their parents or teachers in a stiff-necked manner, but they are willful nonetheless. I call them “sneaky.” Adults think these youngsters are going along with the program, but inside, there’s subversion afoot. When no one is looking, they break the rules and push the limits. When caught, as inevitably they are, they may lie or rationalize or seek to hide the evidence. The appropriate approach to these sneaky kids is not appreciably different from handling the strongwilled child. Sooner or later, his or her self-will can be expected to break into the open, usually during early adolescence. Then it’s “Katie, bar the door.”

I’ll close this introductory chapter by offering two more observations for parents who are raising strong-willed children. First, it is very common for these moms and dads to feel great guilt and self-condemnation. They are trying so hard to be good parents, but the struggle for control that goes on at home day after day leaves them frustrated and fatigued. No one told them that parenthood would be this difficult, and they blame themselves for the tension that arises.  They had planned to be such loving and effective parents, reading fairy tales by the fireplace to their pajama-clad angels, who would then toddle happily off to bed. The difference between life as it is and life as it ought to be is distressing. We’ll talk more about that presently.

Second, I have found that the parents of compliant children don’t understand their friends with defiant youngsters. They intensify guilt and embarrassment by implying, “If you would raise your kids the way I do mine, you wouldn’t be having those awful problems.” May I say to both groups that willful children can be difficult to manage even when parents handle their responsibilities with great skill and dedication. It may take several years to bring such a youngster to a point of relative obedience and cooperation within the family unit, and indeed a strong-willed child will be a strong-willed individual all her life. While she can and must be taught to respect authority and live harmoniously with her neighbors, she will always have an assertive temperament. That is not a bad thing. It simply “is.” During the childhood years, it is important for parents not to panic. Don’t try to “fix” your tougher boy or girl overnight. Treat that child with sincere love and dignity, but require him or her to follow your leadership. Choose carefully the matters that are worthy of confrontation, then accept her challenge on those issues and win decisively. Reward every positive, cooperative gesture she makes by offering your attention, affection, and verbal praise. Then take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Well, that is the subject of our discussion. In the chapters to come, we will explore ways of leading the toughie, approaches to discipline at each age level, reasons why he is the way he is, and many other aspects of child rearing. There’s so much to share.

Before pressing on, however, let me give you an update on our little dachshund, Siggie, whom people still ask me about. This delightful dog lived for seventeen years and gave our family so much pleasure, despite his revolutionary tendencies. Shortly before he died, some teenagers drove through our neighborhood at three o’clock in the morning and tossed a hapless pup out of their car. She showed up at our front door the next morning, scared, hungry, and lost. We didn’t want another dog at the time, even though Siggie had seen his better days. We were especially disinterested in owning a cur whose daddy had been a traveling man. Nevertheless, we couldn’t bring ourselves to take her to the pound. While we were trying to find her another home, we fell head over heels in love with this gentle, vulnerable animal that our daughter named Mindy.

Mindy grew to become the most beautiful, noble dog I’ve ever owned. She simply had no will of her own, except to do the bidding of her masters. Probably because of the unknown horrors of her puppyhood, she could not stand any expression of displeasure on my part. If scolded, she would jump in my lap and hide her eyes in the crook of my arm. Her only wish was to be with her human companions. Many times as I sat reading or studying at my desk, Mindy would quietly slip in beside me and rest her head on my knee. I’ll tell you, I’m a sucker for any living thing with that kind of need. When forced to stay outside, Mindy would sit and stare at us through the family-room window. My wife would get uncomfortable with the dog’s pleading brown eyes focused on her every move, so she actually pulled down the shades. Then Shirley would mutter in exasperation, “Mindy, get a life!”

An incident occurred several years later that illustrated Mindy’s sweet nature. Our family had gone on a two-week vacation and left her alone in the backyard. A neighbor boy came by once each day to feed her and give her fresh water. Thus, her physical needs were met, but we underestimated the loneliness she must have experienced throughout those fourteen days. Why else would this forty-pound dog have gone into our garage and dug through the boxes of toys that our children, Danae and Ryan, had outgrown?

She found the stuffed animals that had long since been discarded and brought them one at a time to her bed near the house. When we arrived home, Mindy was lying on her blanket with eight of these furry friends arranged in front of her. I know! I know! No dog deserves the affection our family bestowed on this ol’ hound, and some of my readers will think it foolish. For my part, however, I believe God designed this species specifically for companionship and devotion to man. (Who knows why the Lord made cats?) Surprisingly, it is believed that the death rate for people who have lost a spouse is 500 percent lower the first year for those who own a dog. Take my advice: If you need something to love, go to the nearest pound and look for a furry little pup who’ll think you’re the neatest boss in the world! That’s what Mindy thought about the Dobsons.

But, alas, this beautiful animal is also gone. My wife, Shirley, called her one day and she failed to come. That had never happened before. We found her lying by the side of the house where she had fallen. Mindy died of lymphoma that had spread throughout her body. And so ended a twelve-year love affair between a devoted dog and her affectionate masters. Good-bye, gentle friend.

I have shared these two dog stories, describing Siggie and Mindy, to illustrate the difference in temperaments between the two animals we have loved.

One of them was determined to run the world and the other was deliriously happy just to be part of the family. They represented opposite ends of the canine universe.

Well, I hope the analogy is clear. In this book, we’re focusing not on dogs but on the varied and infinitely complex personalities of children. We’ll talk in subsequent chapters about what those temperaments mean for parents and how that understanding helps us raise our children properly.

(By the way, I was only kidding when I asked why God created cats. It was a joke. Honest. I didn’t mean it. Please don’t write and say hateful things to me. Like Mindy, I can’t stand to be criticized.)