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Strong-willed Children... Under Our Thumb or Thumbs Up?

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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I guess my feelings about these children come from the fact that I had one. Referring to them as “strong-willed” sets one on the defensive right away. And, I’ve heard other terms that trigger the same reaction, including “stubborn,” obstinate,” and “headstrong.”

Instead, how about “determined” or “tenacious” or even “free-spirited”? These have a more positive ring and seem to more accurately describe this type of child. And let’s not forget, it’s not all bad. There are many positive outcomes and this child can be both challenging and just a whole lot of fun.

There are some things I’ve learned along the way that helped me get through the day with my own child, that I have used with children in my preschool classes, and have shared with my students. I have also found them valuable now with little Radley, my second, free-spirited grandson. The bottom line is to do your best to support this child for who he is and not try to change that.

Here’s what I know…

free child FI

1. He is opinionated. Regardless of what you think he should be doing, he has his own direction mapped out. He may want to wear mismatched clothes or want to excavate the backyard, instead of playing soccer like everyone else’s kid. And, yes, that can be OK. The upside is missing an argument and letting him develop a strong sense of self… one that will help him stand up to peer pressure. He’ll be self-motivated and only do things he believes in, and not just because somebody else suggests something.


2. He is single-focused. He can stand his ground forever! A tenacious child has relentless energy to push back against your best-delivered “Because I told you so.” Instead of butting heads, offer choices that validate his need to have a little power and control, but will still meet your desired outcomes. When he thinks he can direct his own path, he will move on and peace is restored.


3. He is particular. The determined child thinks he knows exactly the way he wants things to go… and he’ll put up a fight to ensure they do. You’ll find he can’t seem to accomplish anything without spunk. But, if we take a look at most successful adults, don’t they have that same quality?

messy face girl

4. He is a limit-tester. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need any because, like any child, limits provide security. However, with this child, limits need to be a little more rubbery. And, a little child psychology can come in handy, too! Not all his demands are practical, but there is value in his ability to question, negotiate, and stand his ground. He’s going to need that stuff later on, right?

let your child have the last word

5. He wants to be in charge. The free-spirited child will take every opportunity to call the shots. This isn’t the same thing as being disobedient. This is his strong desire for adventure and discovering on his own. He’s not going to just sit back and let things happen. You may need to rein that in a bit, but not so much that you break his spirit.

If nurtured, this strong, adventurous, and confident child will develop leadership skills that will be valuable to him throughout his life. Guiding and supporting him can be exhausting at times, but he’s definitely worth all it takes.

mirror girl

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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

  • Guest
    Quinn Wednesday, 02 November 2016

    Thank you for pointing your reader to the creative potential in kids who for too long have been regarded as strong-willed with a negative view. These kids are bubbling with new ways of looking at the world and I am thinking it is us adults who need to change our lenses so we can truly say thumbs-up to their real talents.

  • Guest
    Mary Jane Thursday, 20 July 2017

    Thank you for for the pictures to illustrate your description of a strong willed child, I agree with you 100%, I've always said you want to curve the strong will child but do not break The strong well.

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