Letter to the Parent of a Strong-Willed Child

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My wife Tiffany and I have been married for 9 years this month. We have three strong-willed, high-energy, and beautiful girls: Jessalyn, age 6; Gabriella, age 3; and Sophia, who is 7 months old. They are a force to be reckoned with. Our family lives in rural Virginia. Our girls love to play outside, and we’re currently homeschooling our oldest.

One thing my wife and I have learned is that training and disciplining strong-willed children is not easy!

We constantly need to point our girls to the Lord, and we believe that God can use their determination for His kingdom if they apply it to pursuing the Lord. Our mindset is that God can transform them into a dynamic instrument in this world for His glory.

The world can look at challenging characteristics in our children as a flaw and say, “If only my child weren’t like this, it would make my job easy.” Those same challenging characteristics are a powerful tool in the right hands. It’s easy to look at those things in one of our daughters and try to discipline certain characteristics out of her, but instead we endure and seek to channel and train her to apply her will and determination to the things of God rather than the things of man for her own fleshly desires.

Part of that discipleship takes place during family devotions. We’ve transitioned away from a formal devotional at dinnertime into more storytelling from the Bible at bedtime. When I put them to bed, I lay down with the girls, and we tell silly stories. After that we incorporate family worship.

That’s been very effective, more effective than a formal time of devotions. They look forward to it! I just tell them a Bible story and walk them through it. I often insert them into the story: “Girls, the Israelites are coming out of Egypt. Imagine what it would be like if you were in Goshen and received instructions from Moses to prepare to leave.” It’s been fun to walk them through that.

We try to be intentional about praying. If it’s just me and the girls going to town together, I’ll try to pray while we’re driving down the road. I want them to know that following Jesus isn’t just a formal sit-down time but that it happens throughout the day.

When I’m at work and they’re with Tiffany, they memorize verses, pray for people in church, and sometimes do a service project to serve the people in the church. We also want to teach them to hear the voice of God. We ask them, “Who should we pray for?” Later that day we’ll often hear the person they chose to pray for say, “I really needed prayer today.”

As we’ve discipled our girls, we’ve found that “wins” are few and far between! It is hard. You say the same thing over and over to your kids and wonder, “Is anyone paying attention to me?” There are some stories, however, of growth that we’ve seen in our girls this year.

One day, Jessalyn was sitting at the table, trying not to do something she knew was wrong. Clenching her fists, she said, “Jesus is more powerful than this! I’m going to do the right thing.” She recognized that Jesus would enable her to act upon His power in that moment.

Sometimes we’ll just be sitting down together, and Jessalyn will randomly start talking about pieces of the gospel. She’ll say, “Jesus is living in me; the enemy can’t touch me.” She’ll talk about what Jesus has accomplished. To hear the girls randomly repeat the truths we’ve taught them makes us realize that they’ve been listening. It’s wonderful to hear that.

We’ve seen them grow in generosity over the last year, even willingness to give the last piece, the only piece, to someone else. I was driving Jessalyn and Gabriella around one day, and they each had gotten a sticker from the bank. Gabriella ripped her sticker accidentally and was distraught and upset about that. Jessalyn voluntarily gave Gabriella her sticker, even though Jessalyn knew she wouldn’t get another one. We see her doing those things more and more, and it’s encouraging.

The biggest struggle for us is realizing that in order to effectively disciple our children, we have to model
the behavior we require of them.
 When you are faced with a very strong-willed child, it’s easy and natural to become impatient and frustrated. When they are disobedient and continue in their waywardness, it’s trying for us. It has forced us to evaluate our own hearts.

If I’m asking a child to surrender and submit, I’d better be surrendered and submitted to God myself; otherwise I’m reinforcing their bad behavior. Responding in frustration escalates rather than diffuses things. It can reward them for their disobedience. If I present no buttons to be pressed, we get a lot farther in life.

We’ve learned as parents that it starts with us. Kids ask really blunt and bizarre questions. Our response to their questions influences whether or not they feel comfortable to ask questions. I want to create an environment that is safe for our kids to be honest and open about any question or struggle they may be having.

One day Gabriella announced that she wanted to marry a girl. If I respond out of shock and snap, “That is wrong!” she’s going to shut down and never bring it up again. I want to be the person she is comfortable to talk with. Parents, don’t be surprised about any question or comment that comes out of your kids. Be a safe place for your kids.

Be willing to ask forgiveness. We always tell them to say sorry. That starts with me.

Behavior modification is very easy for a parent to default to, but in the process we can totally overlook the root issue. When you’re tired and exhausted, it’s so easy to nip the behavior, but that’s not effective in the long run. Fixing the root issue is actually helpful, even though it’s so much more work. During those times I often do not know what to do, and I need to ask God for wisdom to get into their hearts.

We can create “good, moral kids” without God’s help. It takes His wisdom and discernment to dig into their heart and foster it to become like Christ’s, and that is the difference between worldly parenting and Christian parenting.

David and his wife, Tiffany, live in Virginia with their three daughters. He serves both as an elder and director of children's ministry at Greenmonte Fellowship.

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