How to Encourage Your Strong-Willed Child

How can we encourage and praise our strong-willed children?

By Sue-Ann Lee | 15 September, 2017

Our oldest child, Skyler, was a spirited toddler. She was vocal, determined (she started walking at 9 months), extremely active and perceptive. We thought that we had our hands full with her, until her brother came along.

Our second child, Elijah, was a strong-willed child right from the start. He was persistent and liked things done his way all the time. He made his spirited sister look like a compliant child by comparison and has kept us on our toes with his constant need to define and negotiate boundaries.

Anyone who has been a parent will tell you that parenting is hard work. After more than a decade of parenting three children with strong yet different personalities, I have ended many a day feeling emotionally drained and utterly exhausted!

Appreciate their Unique Personalities

Elijah is now seven years old, and I have come to appreciate how his thorny exterior hides a loving and sensitive interior. This little boy of mine is often misunderstood in his persistent quest to be respected. With him, we have learnt that yelling orders and demanding for absolute obedience are ineffective. Instead, giving him an extra dose of patience and affection have worked for us.

Learning expert, Cynthia Ulrich Tobias explains that the strong-will child isn’t looking to challenge authority more than the need to feel like they have a sense of control over his or her life.

I clearly remember one morning when Elijah was just three and a half years old. As we rushed to get the children to kindergarten, he was unhappy with everything, from having to wake up to putting on his school uniform. He fought me on my choice of school shoes for him that day and the last straw came when he insisted on eating his sister’s half-eaten kaya bun instead of a new piece. To me, it was the most ridiculous request I had heard all morning and I was adamant not to let him have his way. He ended up kicking and screaming non-stop from our front door all the way to school.

That incident taught me the importance of picking my battles; identifying which ones are necessary to ‘fight’ and which ones to let go of. In our family, disobedience, disrespect and personal safety are non-negotiables.

Strong-willed children come in many forms. While my son, Elijah, is a textbook strong-willed child, our daughter Skyler who is affable, friendly and easy-going for the most part, also has shown a level of stubbornness that can be attributed to her innate strong-mindedness.

Engage and Encourage in Creative Ways

Skyler’s strong-willed nature was apparent last year when she decided to stop learning Mandarin as she no longer enjoyed the process. The night before her exam, she sat at the table refusing to revise. She refused to be persuaded, even when warned that she might fail if she didn’t make an effort to study. I realised then, that she would rather fail than alter her decision. We let her go to bed early that evening, and knew that we had to make a drastic change if we wanted to encourage our daughter to learn.

Being strong-willed ourselves, we understood the value that our spirited child placed on having freedom of choice. Instead of instructing her on what to revise, we ask her to choose the questions she would like to practice. For example, we tell her that she needs to complete five math questions for a specific topic, but give her the freedom to choose which questions to do. Giving Skyler a measure of autonomy helps her feel in control of her learning, and made her more receptive to our feedback as parents.

Identify Parenting Strengths and Weaknesses

Parenting has been a journey in understanding myself better. According to Dr. James Dobson, in his book The New Strong-Willed Child, “The temperaments of children tend to reflect those of their parents”. I am quite certain that our children inherited two strong-willed parents. It is not surprising then, that all three of them are similarly tough-minded!

I have become more aware of the fine line between irritation and anger, when it comes to managing my own emotions. I try to catch myself before I let my feelings get the better of me. There have been many times when my children have pushed my buttons but I have taken this advice to heart, "The moment when I am most repelled by a child’s behaviour that is my sign to draw the very closest to that child." This reminds me to take a deep breath and offer affection to my strong-willed child. While I don’t always succeed, our children now know the routine - we always come back after we calm down. The child will come back with an apology after having time to cool off and we always close the discussion with a hug and reassurance of our unconditional love for them. Building a good parent-child relationship is paramount to us. It forms the foundation of trust that will enable us to offer wisdom and constructive feedback to our children as they grow older.

And so we arm ourselves with a sense of humour, words of encouragement, a healthy dose of affection and trust that these strongly-independent children of ours will grow up to be courageous adults who dare to make a difference in their world.

© 2017 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

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Be Generous When Praising Your Children

There is value in praising our children effectively, and often.

By Tracey Or | 14 September, 2017

Parenthood hits most of us like a whirlwind the very first time. Remember fumbling through parenting manuals scavenging for monthly "survival" tips?

Yet, from the moment we become parents, we pick up the language of affection almost effortlessly and instinctively.

“Adorable!”, “How precious!” “What a cutie!”, “He’s gorgeous!” we gush, lost in the gurgles of the little wide-eyed human who has completely swept us off our feet.

Our praise flows unreservedly when our child nibbles on his first food, takes his first walk, and ambles sheepishly down the aisle of the kindergarten graduation runway. The parent paparazzi in us angles for the best photo shot while cheering “Good job!”, “Well done!”, “You did it!!”

As our children grow, we try to keep up with the rigours of more advanced parenting. Our children have gotten niftier and are starting to test our carefully constructed boundaries. These are the days of tired parenting; trying to keep up with schedules and homework while plodding to the finish line. Our children, too, try to keep pace with our expectations.

We now have many words to describe our children, simply because we have begun to discover so much more about them. We would prattle on when given a chance, about their unique personalities, and the little things that drive us up the wall.

While the kids remain a constant subject of our conversations, we seem less effusive and forthcoming with our praise. Some of the things that we say are not as nice sounding as before. Along the way, affirmation – what used to be the simplest, most natural and empowering thing to do – has ended up the hardest of all.

Raising the Bar on Praise?

Why does praising and affirming our children suddenly require more effort than it used to? Praise suddenly isn’t second nature, and is instead reserved for rarer and “worthier” occasions. We seem to have unwittingly raised the bar for praise. Have we allowed the cynicism and stress in society to rub off on the way we see our children?

As a mother to five, the journey of affirmation is one that I constantly work on. It is easier to allow criticism to roll off my lips than to consistently give praise when due. Our children, on the other hand, are creatures powered by affirmation. It is the fuel of life-giving words that energises them to do better and be better than they already are.

One incident woke me up to how affirmation can be a powerful centrepiece within a child’s heart and mind. A few years ago, my then 6-year-old son, was making some effort to learn his weekly Chinese spelling list. After working at it for some time, he handed me the list to be tested.

Amazingly, at the top right hand corner of his exercise book, he had written a 10/10 and drawn himself 10 stars. Curious, I asked him why he awarded himself the marks and stars prior to being tested. He explained with a cheeky smile: if he made one mistake, he would strike off one star but he would still have nine stars left! His positive self-grading made him feel empowered to do well. In his childlikeness, each correct answer deserved due “recognition”.

In the same way, affirming our children requires us to celebrate what is already there. Sadly, we tend to focus on what is not! In affirming a child, we are telling them that we do see, that we notice and we do appreciate. In a world saturated with all kinds of distractions and negativity, seeing and appreciating is a compelling way to communicate love.

Here are some ways our family has sought to practice affirmation in our household.

1. Praising Character Over Results

We like to affirm our children for demonstrating positive traits and making a good effort regardless of a task’s outcome. If my five year old displayed patience in waiting for her turn, we would acknowledge and thank her for it. My ten year old son is responsible for taking out the trash, and when he does so, even though it is his duty to do so, I still thank him to appreciate the fact that he has done it faithfully. Similarly, my husband and I make an effort to affirm acts of kindness that the children extend to the rest of the family. Over the years, it has established a baseline for respect and honour in our home. This has helped our children to appreciate the importance of giving help and showing kindness without being asked.

2. Being Merciful in Speech

Affirmation is not just about what we say but also what we choose not to say. We practice mercy to avoid going down a harsh and destructive path with our words, no matter how much we feel the situation warrants it. This is where it gets challenging. Plainly put, affirmation is hard to practice when things go wrong.

"Why didn't you...","You should have done this...", "What can't you be more…l?" are commonly heard refrains that focus on blame. A wise saying goes: “Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.”

As adults, we can choose to communicate grace in how we respond to our children's failures when things do not work out as planned. "Don't worry, we will find a way to get through this somehow..." can be healing and affirming when unconditional support and acceptance is communicated.

3. Calling it Out!

The magic of affirmation too, lies in seeing what is hidden and calling it out. It is seeing past the flaws and mistakes of the ones we love and speaking what is not yet there, into being. Affirming our children requires us to intentionally look past their inadequacies and focus on who they can eventually become. I find it useful to imagine each of my children with a love tank and ask myself – how can I call out the best in my child today? The answer to that, very often guides me to do what is needed.

Tracey Or is a mother of 5 lovely kids, aged 1-13years. She writes freelance and blogs on parenting at

© 2017 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

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2 Easy Ways To Be More Effective in Praising Our Kids

How can parents encourage and affirm their children daily?

By Mark Lim | 13 September, 2017

I smiled nervously at my 7-year-old son and held my breath, waiting for the answer to my question. The wait was always unnerving; especially since I never had a clue as to what answer he would give.

“How can I be a better Daddy?” I had ventured.

The little boy looked earnestly at me, and replied in a soft gentle voice, “You could play more games with me.”

“Anything else? Is there any other thing I could do to be a better Daddy?”

“No, that’s all.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had gotten off easy this time.

I had learnt this approach some years back. The question “How can I be a better Daddy?” provides an insight into how we can affirm our children in a love language they understand. This principle is derived from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages of Children. Chapman describes the five love languages that we use to communicate, namely Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gift Giving, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.

Speaking My Child’s Love Language

Each of us communicates using a different language of love. For instance, my 7-year-old appreciates quality time, as evidenced from the conversation that I shared earlier. As such, he beams from ear to ear when I spend an entire evening playing games with him. It’s not so much the winning that he desires, but uninterrupted time with Daddy, especially after I spend so much time at work.

My 5-year-old’s love language is significantly different. I had a hint of it some years back when he would use me as a one-man obstacle course, climbing all over me, regardless of where we were. His love language is definitely that of physical touch, and the boy loves it when I treat him as my “pillow”, lying on him and massaging every inch of his body. It is true that I sometimes feel inadequate, given that I am not naturally inclined towards physical play, and am instead someone who relies more on my mind than on my hands to communicate and make a living. However I know that if I want to express love to my son, I have to communicate it in a way that he understands.

When we affirm our children, we need to do so in using methods they understand; and as I have shared at various parenting talks, this has to be communicated primarily through their love language. This is the first way we can really affirm our kids.

If I want to express love to my son, I have to communicate it in a way that he understands.

Being Intentional in Praise and Affirmation

The second way we can affirm our children is by being specific, using our words to empower our kids towards achieving greater success in their day-to-day accomplishments. This should not be generic, but purposeful and directed. For instance, when I first witnessed my son driving a car in Legoland, I made it a point to tell him that Daddy was proud of him. “Z, you drove very well. You are such a careful driver and you took time to make sure that no one was coming before you made your turns. Daddy is really proud of the way you drive!” And when you have two kids, it is crucial to ensure that you affirm both your kids. We may not be saying the same words for each child (because each one of them is different), but we can choose to affirm each of them commenting on a particular strength or on a specific positive behaviour.

When you have two kids, it is crucial that you affirm both based on their unique strengths.

It is far more meaningful for the child to learn the reason why he did well, rather than merely to hear a generic “Good boy!” or “Well done!” (For the record, we don’t use the words “good boy” or “naughty boy” as we want to encourage or discourage the behaviour, rather than make a comment on the inherent character of the child.)

So how do we really affirm our child? With a deep acceptance and appreciation of the developing person he or she is; and not for the behaviour that he or she exhibits. For our identity and personhood is largely nurtured from as far back as we can remember; and as young kids, it is our parents who help shape the foundations of what we feel about ourselves and how we deal with who we are as a person.

© 2017 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

Mark Lim is the co-founder of The Social Factor, a consultancy firm which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, counselling, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 7 and 5.

Be your kid's greatest cheerleader in 30 days! We know being a positive and affirming parent all the time isn't easy. The Race to Praise 30 Day Challenge is our way of supporting you! Will you accept the challenge?



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