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Author and speaker Cynthia Tobias offers practical advice and encouragement to frustrated parents of strong-willed children. (Part 1 of 2)
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John Fuller: Boy, if you have a strong-willed child, we just got your attention. I know we did. This is Focus on the Family and today, some great advice from an expert who, as you heard, can tell you exactly what’s going on inside that strong-willed child’s head. This is Focus on the Family with your host, Focus president Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, our guest, Cynthia Tobias, is someone who always makes me feel more equipped to deal with our strong-willed child. And by the way, parents, if your strong-willed son or daughter is nearby, grab your earbuds or your headphones. This information is for your ears only.
John: Yeah we want you to have every advantage over that child you can possibly have.
Jim: Right and if you wanna listen later, get the broadcast app and that will take care of that. Cynthia is an expert in learning styles. And many of us have copies of her books at home: classics likeand . The book she’s referring to today is called . And we’d encourage you to get a copy from us here at Focus on the Family. I should mention that Cynthia is the proud parent of twin boys – they’re now grown – and one of them is strong-willed just like she is.
John: Yeah, I think God has somewhat of a sense of humor…
Jim: He does.
John: …and for strong-willed children, eventually they’ll have their own. And as we begin, we’re jumping into the middle of a story here. Cynthia had boarded a plane. She was going to Memphis, Tennessee, and had a few copies of her book,, and she had just sat down and had an overwhelming urge to take a book to the pilot in the cockpit. And this was, obviously, before September 11th and all the restrictions against moving around at the front of the plane. I’ll let Cynthia tell the story, but here she is now on Focus on the Family.
Cynthia: I had a few of these in my briefcase, and I sat down in my seat and I got an overwhelming urge to go up to the cockpit. Now I fought that one, because see, I’m by myself. It’s not like I have my kids with me. A grown person doesn’t go up to the cockpit. But I have learned not to ignore promptings by the Spirit. So I picked up one of these and I walked up. And the captain was standing in the cockpit there, and I said, “I brought you a little reading material in case you get bored during the trip.” Handed it to him and started to walk away, and he said, “Hey, hey, wait. Come here, come here.” He got tears in his eyes. He said, “We have an 18-year-old daughter. We’re at the end of our rope.” He said, “I don’t know what else to do. We’ve tried everything. The kid drives us crazy. She never listens. She’s ungrateful. She talks back. She’s a smart aleck. She won’t apply herself in school. We’ve just had it.” He said, “Monday is the last-ditch effort we’re gonna make.” He said, “We’re going to counseling, and we’re only doing that because the airline’s paying for it.” He said, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t even do that.” He said, “We’ve just had it.”
We talked a little bit about her, and it was time for us to take our seats so that the flight could take off. And I said, “So, this is good. She’s agreed to go to counseling?” He said, “She doesn’t have to agree to anything, ‘cause I’ll tell you what, as long as she’s under my roof in my home, she’s gonna do what I tell her to.” I said, “I have to tell you then, she’s probably not gonna come back.” He leaned closer. He said, “You want to know the truth? I don’t care if I never see her again in my whole life.”
I can’t tell you how many times during the last six months I’ve talked to parents just like him, only Christian parents – good, dedicated, strong, professional people – who will tell me with voices full of guilt, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I don’t think I even like my child anymore. I hate my child. What if I hate them? What if I really can’t stand being with them?”
I had one lady come up to me in Idaho just a few weeks ago, and she said, “I have a 17-month-old – not quite two years old. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him. He drives me crazy. I look forward to the times when I can be away from him. He’s so self-centered. All he thinks about is himself.” She said, “He won’t listen to me. He won’t do what I say.” It doesn’t have to be that way.
We know that we’re different. It’s certainly no news flash that every single person’s different, and it’s why you annoy each other in a family even when you’re doing the best you can to get along. There’s something that happens, though, when a strong-willed individual or two is put into the mix. Something happens in a family. Some wedge gets in there, and there becomes such hard feelings that you wouldn’t even suspect in a good strong Christian home, that there are people who really strongly dislike each other.
See, now, strong will – part of my goal in writing this book is to convince you that strong will is not a negative trait. It’s not. For years, we have believed that strong will means rebellion, defiance, disobedience. But that’s not it. Those have to be dealt with no matter what they are. If you have someone who’s disobeying, someone who’s using their strong will in a way that does not bring honor and glory to God, you don’t let it go. You discipline it. You correct it. You correct and change the behavior, but you don’t want to change the strong will. You don’t want to change the strong will. That’s what makes our world as good as it is right now.
You know, you need strong will if you’re going to move ahead. Some of the greatest biblical characters, in my opinion, were very strong-willed: Peter, Esther. Some of the greatest people in history: Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, all the way through the ages, some of the greatest and best were highly strong-willed, which made them very inconvenient as children. But God used the strength of conviction and the strength of will to go the right direction.
See, it’s not that you have to get the strong will out of that child. It’s that you need to teach that child how to use that strong will in a way that brings honor and glory to God. That’s the key.
Now, some of you are sitting there thinking, “It’s not me. I’m not strong-willed. It’s someone else.” So let’s just find out, shall we? I’m gonna read 12 statements, and for each statement that you would honestly say that’s you, I’m just going to ask if you’ll just raise your hand and put it right back down.
All right, you ready? The strong-willed child – we call it SWC in the book – almost never accepts words like “impossible” or phrases like, “It can’t be done.” Can move with lightning speed from being a warm, loving presence to being a cold, immovable force. May argue the point into the ground, sometimes just to see how far into the ground the point will go. When bored, has been known to create a crisis rather than have a day go by without incident. Considers rules to be more like guidelines. As long as you’re abiding by the spirit of the law, why are you being so picky? Shows great creativity and resourcefulness: seems to always find a way to accomplish the goal. Can turn what seems to be the smallest issue into a grand crusade or a raging controversy. Doesn’t do things just because you’re supposed to – has to matter personally. Refuses to obey unconditionally: seems to always have a few terms of negotiation before complying. Is not afraid to try the unknown, conquer the unfamiliar. Can take what was meant to be the simplest request and interpret it as an offensive ultimatum. And lastly, may not actually say the words to apologize, but almost always makes things right.
All right. Now, how many of you, you only raised your hands three or less times? Three or fewer times you raised your hands? Okay. You look around. These are probably very nice people, easy to get along with. You have a strong will, but you really – you don’t use it much. That’s nice. You raised your hands between four and seven times? Okay. You use it when you need to, but not on a daily basis. It’s good that you’ve got it. How many of you raised your hands between eight and 10 times, eight and 10 times? Look around just a little because we’re starting sort of into the troublemaker category.
How many, like me, raised your hands between 11 and 12 times? That’s you, between 11 and 12. Now, these are the troublemakers. That means we do not leave home without it, and it’s almost impossible not to use it. But did you notice, the people who raised their hands with strong will – and that was pretty much everybody – it’s not a negative trait. There are some of the kindest, some of the most compassionate, some of the most entrepreneurial and successful people you’d ever hope to meet, because the strong will was an asset, not a liability.
See, a lot of things when you’re younger are considered to be a liability, and later, they’re actually the very thing you need. Many of you have heard me tell about not only was I a high school teacher for several years, but I was a police officer for several years. While I wanted to be a police officer in 1980, and they really weren’t going to let me in, mostly because even though I’d taken all the tests, they considered my being from a Christian background a detriment. See, now, I figured I’d be pretty good in police work, because I’ve always had what I consider a gift of sarcasm. When you’re younger, it’s not considered a gift.
You’re not really appreciated for a smart-aleck response or a little sarcasm. But when I went into the police department, they said, “Well, you scored well in all your tests, but frankly, we don’t want a woman.” This was 1980 and I said, “Well, I’m not trying to prove any feminist thing. I just – I mean, I’d like to see if I can be a cop for a while.” They said, “Didn’t you come from a goody two-shoes sort of background?” I said, “Well, my dad’s a preacher.” They said, “Do you swear?” I said, “No. No, we were not allowed to use profanity growing up.” They said, “Well, can you?”
I said, “Why?” They said, “Because you can’t be a cop and work with bad guys and not use profanity. You’ve got to use it. You gottta talk to them in their own language.” They said, “I’ll tell you what. We’ll give you a chance, but in six months, trust me, you’ll be swearing like a longshoreman.” You know, you should not issue that kind of challenge to a strong-willed individual.
I found that my gift of sarcasm finally worked better than profanity. It was. It was great, because, you know, the bad guy’d be in his holding cell yelling and screaming and telling me what to do and where to go while I was booking him in. I would calmly say, “You know, I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” Then he would get really mad. He would yell and scream and say, “Oh, big woman cop, huh? Bet you hate all men.” I’d say, “You know, not normally, but in your case I’m willing to make an exception.”
Six years, never once did I ever have to utter a word of profanity. That was supposed to be a drawback – that strong will, that smart-aleck response, a little sarcasm – that was supposed to be a drawback. But you know what? Used in the right way, it kept me right up on top the path of righteousness, instead of taking the path of least resistance. It’s not a negative trait. It’s one of the most powerful and positive traits a child can have. And if you were blessed with a strong-willed child, you have been, I guarantee you, complimented greatly by God.
Now, some of you are sitting here wishing you had not been quite so highly complimented, but you know, there are many things, many ways that you can deal with us – with our strong will when we’re young or as we’re older, even with spouses. How many of you believe that you married a strong-willed child? They’re still it, aren’t they? They’re still strong-willed. You can use it for the very best – in the very best way – if you know how to understand the way we think.
John: You’re listening to Cynthia Tobias on Focus on the Family. And you can get her excellent book called,, for a monthly pledge or a one-time gift of any amount to the ministry of Focus on the Family. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY, or you can donate and request the book at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Let’s go ahead and return now to more from Cynthia Tobias.
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Cynthia: Don’t get me wrong on this. I do not think that you should ever let a strong-willed person get by with special favors and do things that are wrong or bend the rules just ‘cause they’re strong-willed. That’s not what I’m suggesting. In fact, with the hundreds of strong-willed people I talked to in this book, we all agree on one basic thing: we do not have trouble with authority. I never met one strong-willed kid, including some very prodigal kids – body pierced everywhere you can imagine, lots of paint, really rebellious, never wanting to go home again – and yet, when I talked to them, they will still say, “Oh no, it wasn’t authority, really, that I struggled with.”
We all will tell you authority’s good. We wanted our parents to be the authority. We wouldn’t respect you if you weren’t. We wanted the government to maintain the authority. We wanted the teachers to have the authority. It wasn’t the authority; it was how the authority was communicated. We had a whole lot of trouble with that.
See I don’t want you to be the boss of me, ‘cause you really can’t make me do anything. I’m not a bad person, never have been, really. I’m the daughter of a Nazarene preacher; you know that – my dad’s been in the ministry for a long time. I never rebelled against him, never caused trouble really, not openly. Couldn’t have traced half the trouble I caused ever back to me. ‘Cause outwardly I was pretty easy to get along with: didn’t fight you confrontationally, ‘til you point your bony finger in my face and you back me into the corner, and you say, “Do it or else.” And then I’ll just “else”, ‘cause I know there’s nothing I really have to do, except die, which I’m willing to do. If I’m willing to die and you’re not, I win. Okay, I’m dead but I win. I don’t care if I have to die to do it. Do you understand? I don’t care if I have to die to do it. Cut off my nose to spite my face? Daily minor surgery. Would I go the long way, the hard way, just to make sure that you couldn’t “make” me do something? Yes, I would. Not just to spite you, but because I have trouble when you tell me I don’t have a choice.
The Bissel steamer carpet cleaner company has a television commercial. They’re trying to sell you an expensive carpet steamer machine. At the end of the commercial, their motto is, “Life’s messy, clean it up.” You clean it up! You’ve got the machine, you clean it up. How do they think this will motivate me? They could change the whole commercial with one word: “Life’s messy. Let’s clean it up.” Okay. No problem. I’m not that hard to get along with really, I’m not. I don’t wanna clean it up, though. I want, “Come on, let’s clean it up.” Not a problem.
I don’t have trouble with authority. I know authority has to be in place, but you’re not the boss of me. You can’t force me to do something. You can’t force me to love you. You can’t force me to respect you in the end. You can’t force me to do anything. I figured that out at 18 months. You know, they can open your mouth and they can put the peas in and they can force your mouth closed, but they cannot force you to digest peas, because there’s a certain amount of control that you in the end will always have, should you choose to die. They can’t make you do the right thing. This is very frustrating to traditional parents, especially.
And when I give – just the other day when I was talking on the – a radio talk show of a large Christian station, couple different callers called in and said, “You know, the Bible says ‘Children, obey your parents.’ It is our job as parents to make those children obey.” No, it’s not. It’s not. It’s your job to teach them and to hold them accountable and to motivate and inspire and not let them get by with bad behavior. But it is not your job to force them. You can’t. God Himself is the only one who would ever be able to force you to do something against your free will, and He never has, and He never will.
There are certain immutable laws of the universe. There are certain inevitable consequences should you disobey, but God doesn’t force you to do the right thing. He doesn’t. He prevented Himself from doing it. I always have a choice. I could choose the consequences if I want to.
My mom will tell the story. She still tells of when I was three years old, when she would say to me, “Cindy, if you stand on that table, I’m going to spank you.” And in my toddler head, I’m thinking, “How hard could it be? How long could it last? Okay, go ahead. I’m willing to take the spanking.” I know it’s going to hurt a little, but hey, I wanted to do it, so I did it. Is this rebellion and defiance? You know, it is, because she just told me I was not to do it, and I deliberately defied her. Should I receive the spanking and the consequence? Absolutely. Did I know it was going to happen? Yes, I did, but she couldn’t force me not to take the consequence ‘cause I still have a free will. I can be held accountable and should be. Can’t force it. Can’t force it.
How you talk to me is going to make all the difference in the world. Your authority can still stay intact while you respect me. Big difference between saying, “Get yourself down those stairs and into that van right now. We are late. Get in the van.” See, why don’t you just say, “You know what? The van leaves in two minutes. Let’s go.” Same bottom line, same accountability, consequence met. Whole different way the way you treat me.
“You’re not doing any – you’re not watching any TV till that homework’s done. You understand me? No television ‘til the homework’s done.” Wrong way. “Feel free to watch television. That favorite show you like, feel free to watch that as soon as your homework’s done.” I still know that I can’t watch TV till my homework’s done, but you know what? You phrased it in a pretty positive way, and I know I have a choice. I know if I choose not to do my homework, I never will get to watch TV tonight. It may be a consequence I’m willing to pay. If you can back up a little and back off a little, you’ll be surprised how much more I’ll cooperate with you. Stop yelling at me. Stop screaming at me.
We had a rule in the police department. When you pulled over a violator when they were speeding or they had a violation, you did one of two things. You either wrote them a ticket or you gave them a lecture and left them off with a warning. Now, here was the rule, see. If you were gonna give them a ticket, you couldn’t give them a warning, too. They didn’t have to listen to a lecture ‘cause they’re getting a ticket. If you’re not gonna give them a ticket, then they have to listen to the lecture ‘cause they’re not getting a ticket, so they gotta endure a lecture, but you can’t do both.
I’m convinced when it comes to parenting, especially the strong-willed, independent, spirited child that we give way too few tickets and we give way too many emotional warnings. “How many times have I told you this? Do I have to tell you this one more time ‘cause I’ll tell you what. Didn’t I say that this would happen? Why did you do this again? I’m not kidding, if you don’t…”
Write me the ticket. Just write me the ticket, and could we move on? I did the wrong thing. I know that. Write me the ticket. I pay the fine. I might get another ticket a couple more times before I stop doing it, but stop yelling at me. The yelling has no effect whatsoever except to alienate me. And you need a relationship with me as your strong-willed child. You need a relationship, because if you don’t have a relationship that I want to keep and preserve with you, you’ve got no leverage. You’ve got nothing.
I still remember with Michael – the strong-willed child that Mom wanted me to get – Mike, when he was only about three, on our way home from church one Sunday, back in the back in their car seats, Mike’s whacking and wailing on his brother. I turned and I said, “Michael, stop hitting your brother.” And he said, “Pffffffft.”
I said, “Stop the car. Stop the car right now.” We pulled the car over and I opened my door and I whipped open that van door and I took that little boy out and I stood him on the sidewalk and started to talk to him and he just fell apart. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Robert, and I’m sorry, Mommy, and I won’t do it again.” I didn’t have to do anything really. He came up to me just a few months later after that incident and he said, “Mommy, I’m very mad with you.” I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess no snuggling tonight.” “Well, no, I’m very sad with you then.”
Back up, back up, back up. No, he doesn’t want to give up that. See, if you don’t have a relationship with your strong-willed child that they want to keep, you’re lost. You’ve got to start back and get the relationship back before anything else will work. Part of doing that is communicating your authority in a way that shows respect and love, not dictatorship, not bossiness.
John: And that’s where we need to end Cynthia Tobias’ message for this episode of Focus on the Family. And she has shared some great content. I’m sure as a mom or a dad, you are appreciating it. I can almost hear the sigh of relief from folks who have interacted with Cynthia here. And we’re gonna have more of her wit and wisdom next time.
Jim: We will, John. And I really can relate to what Cynthia was saying there about how to approach that strong-willed child when they need to be punished – need a consequence, perhaps, for that behavior that is inappropriate. We need to just write the ticket and move on. And I tell ya, I have sucked into more battles with one of my boys, and it’s so easy to go there. You know, you start arguing and defending. And in fact, I think one of my boys is going to be a great lawyer someday because I feel like, you know, we’re two attorneys going at it before some invisible judge. And he keeps saying, “Well why?”
I remember one time we talked about a curfew time. And I said to him, “You know, nothin’ good happens after that hour.” And he said to me, “What empirical data do you have to support that?” And I’m going, “Wow, okay, well let me do some research and I’ll get back to you.”
John: “I’ll get back to you.”
Jim: But he’s that data-driven. And you know, sometimes with those strong-willed children, when they’re looking for you know, “Back it up, buddy!” That can be frustrating and it can be really stretching your parenting skills. But Cynthia provides so many great insights on how to do it – just write the ticket like she said. Walk away, don’t engage in the battle, don’t engage in the argument, because you really take yourself down to their level.
John: You do and you feed the fuel that they’re looking for, right? When you’re angry, that seems like a strong-willed child just lives on that – that outburst of emotion. So we have found just calmly engaging once and then disengaging so sucks the life out of an argument.
Jim: It does.
John: “What? You’re not gonna argue with me? Come on, Dad!” No, I’m not going to argue with you.
Jim: Yes, it’s so true. Well, yeah. Just walk away. And I know that’s easy to say, sitting here in the studio, but it’s another thing to actually be able to stay calm when your blood is boiling and you wanna respond with emotion. Raising a strong-willed child can really wear you down. That’s where support is important – having a friend. Call us here at Focus – we’re here for you too. We can be that friend. It’s especially true if you’re that single parent or have a spouse who’s deployed or who travels a lot. You’re just trying to do this on your own so often.
Here’s a note we received from a single mom after we aired this program in 2011. She said, “Last night, I was done. I couldn’t take another day with my strong-willed 12-year-old son. I cried out to God and begged Him to help me, then fell asleep with the radio on. At 5 o’clock this morning, I woke up to Cynthia’s voice on Focus on the Family. I listened intently, then thanked God for answering my prayer through your program.”
John: Oh, I love that!
Jim: Isn’t that good?
John: That is tremendous.
Jim: Hey, let me just say that if you support this ministry financially, on behalf of the single-parent mom, thank you for helping us provide this radio show everyday like that mother so desperately needed. You are a big part of the work that is going on here to equip parents and to strengthen families that need help. And if you’re not already supporting Focus on the Family, may I ask you to pray about becoming a monthly partner? That’s the most effective way for you to stand with us to help families thrive. Jean and I do that, I think you and Dena do that as well.
John: We do as well, yes.
Jim: It’s a wonderful way to keep our budgets even and kinda the dollars that we need to make everything happen. When you make a monthly pledge of any amount, we’ll send you a copy of Cynthia’s excellent book on strong-willed children. It’s called,– love that title. Ask for a copy when you become a monthly partner with Focus on the Family today. And if you’d rather not make that monthly commitment, we’ll get the book to you for a one-time gift of any amount. Just get in touch with us so that we can get the resource into your hands.
John: You can reach us by calling 1-800-A-FAMILY – 800-232-6459, or donate online and request the book,, at focusonthefamily.com/radio. While you’re there, be sure to look for a free survey that we have to help identify your strengths and some growth areas as a parent. It’s called, “The 7 Traits of Effective Parenting”. It’s free and we’ll link over to it. And then, if you enjoyed today’s program, please tell a friend to tune in next time as Cynthia shares how to enjoy your relationship with a strong-willed child like herself.
Cynthia: You need a relationship – that’s what you need first. You need a way to talk to us, a way to show us that you love us, a way to show that you push back when we push, but you won’t yell and scream and be unreasonable.
End of Teaser
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