Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Your Strong-Willed Child … Isn’t

February 18, 2020 by Brandy Vencel

The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites. But observe, the passions, the desires, the appetites, are there already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these …

Home Education, p. 319

I know, I know. My whole generation was brought up on Dr. Dobson, so it’s practically heresy to say this. But I maintain. Especially since this doesn’t mean that difficult children don’t exist, or that some aren’t harder to raise than others. It’s just that Dr. Dobson was using a faulty, non-traditional definition of “will.” If we’re going to pull off a classical, Charlotte Mason education, we need to adjust our definitions to fit our philosophy, or we’re going to misunderstand what we’re reading.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

What is a “strong-willed child”?

There have been many attempts to discover synonyms for “strong-willed” — I’ve seen it called stubborn or spirited most frequently. It can be difficult to untangle, especially in the current environment when there is a desperation to couch everything in a positive light. When you search around for characteristics, though, you find things like:

  • Throws tantrums
  • Is bossy
  • Must have own way
  • Argumentative
  • Impatient
  • Ignores the voices of those in authority
  • Moody

And so on and so forth. This is enough for us to understand why books and articles on dealing with this type of child abound. Because it’s hard. And also exhausting.

Did I mention hard?

Ahem.

So this is the accepted terminology for a difficult, stubborn child. I get it. I don’t deny children like this exist, nor that they often require special care and handling.

What I do take issue with is that we actually have it all backwards. If an adult must have his own way, can’t negotiate, ignores authority (think insubordination to his boss), is so moody everyone has to walk on eggshells around him, and argues about everything, we don’t call him spirited. Why? Because he’s immature, likely annoying, and unenjoyable to be with.

He’s not strong-willed. He’s a slave.

We see this clearly with adults. But with children, we want to soften the blow, say it’s not that bad, and promise they’ll grow up someday to be the CEO of a major company who sticks to their convictions. I think they have this potential, sure, but only if they are taught to channel their energy and subordinate their passions rather than growing up slaves to their own whims.

But first …

We need to return to the proper definition of “will.”

This might feel new to you, but it’s actually very old. Over a century ago, Charlotte Mason wrote this:

The baby screams himself into fits for a forbidden plaything, and the mother says, ‘He has such a strong will.’ The little fellow of three stands roaring in the street, and will neither go hither or thither with his nurse, because ‘he has such a strong will.’ He will rule the sports of the nursery, will monopolise his sisters’ playthings, all because of this ‘strong will.’

Home Education, p. 320

Decades later, Miss Mason repeats herself:

It is in him to be a little tyrant; “he has a will of his own,” says his nurse, but she is mistaken in supposing that his stormy manifestations of greed, wilfulness, temper, are signs of will.

Philosophy of Education, p. 37

Does he really have a strong will? That’s the question central to this conversation. Charlotte Mason says NO. He is wilful, yes, but not strong-willed:

Wilfulness indicates want of Will Power. — But, all the time, nobody perceives that it is the mere want of will that is the matter with the child. He is in a state of absolute ‘wilfulness,’ — the rather unfortunate word we use to describe the state in which the will has no controlling power; willessness, if there were such a word, would describe this state more truly.

Home Education, pp. 320-321

What does she mean? She means that there is no will power involved in taking the path of least resistance. It is easier for me to throw a tantrum than to conduct myself with dignity. It is easier for me to give in to temptation than to resist it. It is easier for me to demand what I want, right now, than to wait with patience, or deny myself altogether. The child throwing himself to the ground isn’t strong at all; he’s a slave.

Charlotte Mason puts it this way:

The Wilful Person has one Aim. — The wilful person is at the mercy of his appetites and his chance desires. Esau must needs have that red pottage, he must needs hunt, or marry, or do whatever his desires move him towards at the moment. So must needs do the crafty gambler, the secret drunkard, the slothful soul, the inordinate novel-reader, the person for whom ‘life’ means ‘pleasure.’ Each of these is steady to only one thing, he must always have his way; but his way is a will-o’-the-wisp which leads him in many directions. Wherever gratification is to be found — for his vanity, his love of nice eating, his desire for gay company, or his ambition, his determination to be first, — there he goes. He is a wilful man, without power or desire to control the lead of his nature, having no end in view beyond the gratification of some one natural desire, appetite, or affection.

Ourselves, p. 130

This does not mean the ideal is a compliant child with no backbone.

It’s often presented as two options, isn’t it? There is the easy-going child who does whatever her mother tells her, and then there is the supposedly “strong-willed” child who doesn’t really obey her mother ever — because obeying when you agree is simply going along with your own inclinations. Take note: being naturally compliant is often just a peaceful, more agreeable manifestation of the same type of slavery.

Charlotte Mason lets us in on many secrets of human nature, and this is one: neither of these children has the vigorous will we’re looking for.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I Corinthians 13:11

What does having a vigorous will really mean?

Will, in Charlotte Mason’s economy, must be placed in the service of something or someone outside of Self. Serving ourselves never, ever requires an act of will. As I said before, giving into myself and my desires is the easiest thing in the world; this is why doing it repeatedly is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

We can emphasize to children the importance of self-control, self-command, and so on, but Miss Mason thinks there is a better way:

When the Will aims at what is without self and more than self, the appetites are no longer ravenous, nor the emotions overpowering, nor the temper rebellious (except for a quick, impulsive instant, followed by regret and recovery). As for self-denial, it is impossible for love to go without what it wants, because it is not aware of personal wants. The mother who feeds her child with the last crust, covers it with her last rag, does not exercise self-denial, but love.

Ourselves, p. 154

… the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13:13

In self-control and self-command, there is still an awareness of Self. But love means we have forgotten Self altogether in our quest to serve that which we love.

Miss Mason continues:

Give the Will an object outside itself, and it will leap to service, even to that most difficult of all service, the control of the forces of Mansoul. It is not by one grand fiat, but by many ordered efforts of Will, that we overcome those failures in self-restraint, self-control, self-denial, which are the misery of our lives, and which we know to be sin by the wretchedness they bring upon ourselves and others, and the separateness from others which they set up in our hearts. It is not self-ordering, but an object outside of ourselves, leading to self-forgetfulness and a certain valiant rising of the will, to which we must look for a cure for the maladies that vex us.

Ourselves, pp. 154-155

How does Will become strong?

We want our children to have these strong, vigorous wills. So what now? How do we train them? Let me share a bit of what Charlotte Mason recommended:

1. “Let him know the secret of willing.”

[L]et him know that, by an effort of will, he can turn his thoughts to the thing he wants to think of — his lessons, his prayers, his work, and away from the things he should not think of; — that, in fact, he can be such a brave strong little fellow, he can make himself think of what he likes; and let him try little experiments — that if he once get his thoughts right, the rest will take care of itself, he will be sure to do right then; that if he feels cross, naughty thoughts coming upon him, the plan is, to think hard about something else, something nice — his next birthday, what he means to do when he is a man. Not all this at once, of course; but line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, as opportunity offers. Let him get into the habit of managing himself, controlling himself, and it is astonishing how much self-compelling power quite a young child will exhibit. “Restrain yourself, Tommy,” I once heard a wise aunt say to a boy of four, and Tommy restrained himself, though he was making a terrible hullabaloo about some small trouble.

Home Education, pp. 328-329

Letting children know that they do not have to be slaves to their own thoughts, that they can choose to think about something else, is a great blessing to them.

2. Invite him to obey.

This is subtle, so you might want to read this quote a few times:

[O]bedience is valuable only in so far as it helps the child towards making himself do that which he knows he ought to do. Every effort of obedience which does not give him a sense of conquest over his own inclinations, helps to enslave him, he will resent the loss of his liberty by running into license when he can. That is the secret of the miscarrying of many strictly brought-up children. But invite his co-operation, let him heartily intend and purpose to do the thing he is bidden, and then it is his own will that is compelling him, and not yours; he has begun the greatest effort, the highest accomplishment of human life — the making, the compelling of himself. Let him know what he is about, let him enjoy a sense of triumph, and of your congratulation, whenever he fetches his thoughts back to his tiresome sum, whenever he makes his hands finish what they have begun, whenever he throws the black dog off his back, and produces a smile from a clouded face.

Home Education, p. 328

3. Give freedom … as appropriate.

We want them to experience success, so we don’t give them more freedom than they can handle. As children get older and we help them understand what is the Will and how they can use it, we grant them the opportunity to flex those Will muscles.

The parent may venture to place the power of will in the hands of his child only in so far as he trains him to make a reasonable use of so effective an instrument.

Home Education, p. 327

4. Pray

Miss Mason wisely observes:

[N]o one can make a child obey unless he wills to do so, and we all know how small a rebel may make confusion in house or schoolroom …

Philosophy of Education, p. 37

We can teach our children a habit of obedience from the very first year of life, but true obedience is an act of the Will. When I’m small, it’s my mother and father I choose to obey. When I’m older, it’s my boss, or the law, or the Lord. In fact, I may even choose to disobey a lower authority out of obedience to a higher one. These choices are made in the secret places of the heart. All our training, all our coaching — it’s all external. We have a measure of influence, yes, but even that is a grace from the Lord.

And so we pray.

[W]e recognise that God does not make over the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which it must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child …

School Education, p. 35

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5 Comments

  • Reply Hannah February 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    This is so helpful. I really appreciate the point that loudly oppositional and meekly obedient children both lack strong wills and how you point out that CM wanted us to purpose them to be in control of our wills consciously choosing our duty.

    I would love to hear about any practical examples you have for how this works at various ages, particularly how we help them when “they aren’t strong enough to control their own wills.” How do we do that with young children (5-8) who seem to have little “moral fiber” or inward conviction and whose obedience only manifests because of parental constraints?

  • Reply Joanna February 20, 2020 at 7:05 am

    This shift in thinking has been huge for me. It makes so much sense!

  • Reply Becky February 19, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    I love this. I have one of these willful children and have begun to explain to him that he is a slave to his desires and his wants. He definitely doesn’t like hearing this. It really has plugged us into a far more logical and reasonable conversation about what Jesus expects from his followers and why.

  • Reply Jessie February 19, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    Thank you! Such a compilation of encouraging reminders.

  • Reply Lacey February 19, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you Brandy! This is indeed thought worthy!

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