willful child

Parenting the Strong-Willed Child and the Unmotivated Child

One of the prominent theories surrounding the sinking of the Titanic is the rudder being too small to effectively steer such a large ship. The theory is up for debate, but it’s definitely true that a large ship with a small rudder is difficult to maneuver. Like ships, kids need parents to help steer them in the right direction. But there are two types of kids who are like large ships with small rudders, difficult to move: the strong-willed and the unmotivated, or even a combination of both.

Parents and children often experience frustration when their wills determine to go in opposite directions. A wise parent will look for ways to redirect a child’s intensity or inspire a child with a lack of intensity. Here are some practical ways to parent a willful child and/or an unmotivated child.

Understanding a Strong-Willed Child

Children who make decisions with intensity tend to be called “strong-willed.” All children fall somewhere on the continuum between strong-willed and unmotivated, depending on their intensity level about life. A willful child is generally determined, highly motivated, persistent, and not easily persuaded once she has made up her mind. Most parents look at a willful child negatively because he creates resistance and frustration in family life. A willful child keeps moving in a certain direction in spite of obstacles. Often, these children need bigger barriers or tighter limits to teach them that those boundaries are firm. On the other hand, the strong-willed child accomplishes things in life, because the roadblocks that might hold others back are no match for this kid’s determination.

A willful child has the potential to become the next generation of leaders.

A willful child has the potential to become the next generation of leaders. Leaders have an agenda, look for ways to incorporate others into their plans, and have a higher need for control in life. Balanced with graciousness, leaders become a treasure because they make things happen, create organization out of chaos, and motivate people to action. Unfortunately, it’s hard to raise a leader. Many parents of strong-willed children wish their kids were more compliant. Yet, in reality, it’s the strong-willed kids who are often better equipped to succeed, be creative, and face adversity. Of course, a strong-willed child can also be defiant and rebellious. Many prisons are full of strong-willed people. The key is something deeper than the will. It’s the heart. When the heart is in the right place, it guides the will in the right direction.

Understanding an Unmotivated Child

Unmotivated children are generally passive, cooperative, flexible, easy going, and accommodating. These children may be easier to get along with because they lack the drive of strong-willed people. Still, even unmotivated children can be strong-willed sometimes; it’s just not their general tendency. They may seem easier to raise, but parents also struggle with these kids at times. They may not have the fortitude to stand up for themselves, withstand temptations, or push hard to complete a task. They’re sometimes people-pleasers and may be easily directed in positive or negative ways, depending on who they’re with. Interestingly enough, when it comes to defiance, these kids may be just as stubborn as strong-willed children. In the same way that strong-willed children need stronger fences in their lives, unmotivated children often need direction.

Even unmotivated people wrestle with issues and questions in their hearts, although you may not see it as clearly as in the strong-willed child. Some children process things more internally and aren’t as transparent. These children appear compliant, allowing others to make decisions or take the lead, but their anger may be growing inside. Fear of failure may keep an unmotivated child from taking action. Some kids want everything perfect before they’ll take the first step. Unlike the strong-willed child, who often learns by jumping in and making mistakes, the unmotivated child will hold back until more parts of the plan become obvious.

Sometimes parents overlook the unmotivated child because she isn’t causing any trouble, generally gets along with people, and appears easygoing. It may be more difficult to know what’s going on in this child’s heart, requiring extra work and effort. Give your children opportunities to test out new things without criticism. Making mistakes is part of growth.

Practical Parenting

Start with the heart. Identify their motivations and attitudes that are unhealthy, self-promoting, insecure, or fear-filled. Explain those attitudes to your child and that we all have them, and need to work on changing them. Heart change is what changes behavior in the long run. Set clear and firm boundaries then always follow through with consequences. However, always explain why they are receiving a consequence and bring it back to the root problem, the bad attitudes of the heart.

Be self-controlled. Children need firmness, but firmness is not the same as harshness, which damages relationships. Firmness sets down a boundary and lets children know that if it’s crossed, a consequence will follow. Firmness holds a child accountable to take the next steps. Don’t use anger to overpower a strong will or to put a fire under an unmotivated child. It may work for a while, but in the end, you’ll lose closeness.

Listen to them. It’s important for parents to listen to their children. In fact, compromise can be a good thing in many situations. Asking children to propose an alternative solution helps them develop the ability to appeal graciously to authority.  But some parents have erred too far in that direction, and their children can’t seem to follow any instructions without a dialogue.

Be direct. Your job is to teach your child where limits exist in relationships. Conversation is good, but sometimes, strong-willed children need to just stop resisting and do it your way. If you find yourself in a pattern of never-ending spiral conversations, and your child is becoming more demanding and self-willed in this area, you need to develop a new routine. In a calm moment, have a sit-down meeting and say, “We seem to have a problem when I give you an instruction you don’t like. I appreciate your persistence, and many of your ideas are good, but when I tell you to do something, I want you to obey first; then we’ll talk about it later. I want to see if you can accept my instructions and cooperate without arguing.”

Have a stronger will. Parents with strong-willed or unmotivated children need to be resolved to never giving in to the child’s constant pushing or lethargy. It’s not an option. Many strong-willed children have weak-willed parents, allowing the children to become more selfish and demanding. Hold your ground, keep challenging attitudes, and talk through issues. When you are tired, find your inner strength.

Sound off: What has worked for you in parenting a strong-willed or unmotivated child?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Why do you think it’s good to obey me right away?”