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Journey of a Strong-Willed Child
By Kendra Smiley, Aaron Smiley, John Smiley, Ali Childers
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 Kendra Smiley
All rights reserved.
The Journey Begins: Birth to Pre-Kindergarten
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13–14
Our strong-willed child, Aaron Joseph Smiley, arrived in February of 1981. I still remember the moment of his birth. Dr. Tanner (our family physician and the father of five sons) announced, "It's a boy!"
Naively, my enthusiastic response was, "Oh good! I already know how to do boys!" I don't remember seeing Dr. Tanner's eyes roll to the back of his head, but undoubtedly he wondered how I could make such a ridiculous statement!
Our first son, Matthew, was two years old at the time. I would classify him as a compliant child. It was not that he always obeyed us perfectly, but he did "aim to please." As a former teacher, I had perfected the "schoolteacher look." You know how it goes: lips drawn tightly in a pseudo-pucker, eyebrows knit together, and a very stern countenance. That "look" was completely effective with my oldest son. A stern look or a gentle scolding generally brought about conviction, legitimate repentance, and a heartfelt vow to "do better." (Can you see why I had such confidence when son number two was born? Just look at how well I had been doing with son number one!)
But the truth was that I did not know how to "do boys" any more than I had conquered the art of parenting. And that was a truth that I was soon to discover. Forget "the look" when it came to Aaron.
While Matthew was compliant and aimed to please, Aaron had different ideas. I used to explain his strong-willed nature this way: "If we draw a line in the sand and tell Aaron not to cross it and why, and we tell him the penalty for disobedience, he will immediately step up to the line, as close as he can possibly get, and inquire, 'What did you say you were going to do to me if I step over this line?' Then he reviews the consequences and determines whether or not to cross the line. And many times, over the line he goes." Ah, a strong-willed child.
Aaron did not always use defiance to try to get his way. This sweet little boy came into the world looking just like the Gerber baby, complete with wispy blond hair, big blue eyes, and a ready smile. One of my earliest recollections of his manipulation skills involved the use of charm, not defiance. When he was just a little over two years old, I remember scolding Aaron. I don't recall the issue, but I do remember his actions. When I finally paused in my reprimand and took a breath, Aaron smiled his deep-dimpled smile, reached out with his chubby little hands and patted me gently on both cheeks. "Dat be alwight, Mommy," he cooed in an effort to comfort me, his overwrought mother. Ah, what a sweet, caring child. Wait a minute! I wasn't the one in need of comfort. I wasn't the one in trouble, he was! I'm sure Aaron thought, "If this works, why not go for it?"
Strong emotion can definitely sway a parent. "I can't believe you're doing this to me" can make any parent step back and think. Hopefully, the parent filters this sentiment through the mind to realize that strong emotion and words like "mean" and "hate" are words used to manipulate and gain control. Also, strong emotion can translate into a tantrum, which can add the term "embarrassment" to your list of sentiments.
Very few tricks that Aaron tried (charm, guilt, strong emotion, or otherwise) worked with his dad. Remember, I told you that John is a strong-willed child turned responsible adult. He knew the tricks and the importance of wise parenting.
At one point, John and two-year-old Aaron were literally eyeball-to-eyeball on the stairs, and the words from John's mouth were as follows: "Aaron, you will not win. When I tell you to do something, you must do it." If only that was the last time he had to make that statement! Even at an early age, Aaron desired control of his world.
Aaron accepted Christ as his Savior at around four years old. It was actually the result of the guilt and remorse he felt about his own out-of-control, strong-willed behavior. He was having a very bad day and was in trouble with everyone in the family—Dad, Mom, and his older brother.
Here is a little background. Beginning when he was a toddler, Aaron was interested in agriculture and animals. I remember pulling into a cornfield on one of the family farms and hearing little Aaron pipe up from the backseat, "Dat torn looks dood!" (Translation: That corn looks good!) Our older son did not notice the status of the corn and had no opinion about its potential yield. Aaron's paternal grandfather is a farmer. This common love of agriculture made these two fast friends from the very beginning.
Now, back to the story of Aaron's personal encounter with Christ. As I said previously, that day he was behaving quite poorly (gross understatement). Bedtime finally came, and with it, the hope for a better tomorrow with less confrontation. Finally, there was peace and quiet. The next morning Aaron was up quite early. He waddled down the stairs in his footie pajamas, dragging one of his favorite blankets. When he arrived at the threshold of the kitchen, he stopped abruptly, waited for my attention, and then proceeded with his announcement.
"I asked Jesus into my heart last night," he declared. I was thrilled about this and immediately began to ask him about the details.
"That is just great!! Tell me all about it," I pried. "What happened to help you make this decision?"
"Well," he began, "I was sooooooo bad yesterday that everyone was mad at me. I figured that even Grandpa would have been mad."
(Remember, as far as Aaron was concerned, he and Grandpa were as tight as you could get. So the thought of Grandpa being mad was a very serious thing!)
He continued, "But I knew that even if everyone else was mad at me, Jesus loved me, so I asked Him into my heart."
By the way, that conversion experience was real and is often referred to by Aaron as "the most boring testimony possible." Personally I call it "the testimony every mother wants her child to have." Understanding God's love was important and would temper Aaron's behavior somewhat, but it definitely did not turn him into a compliant child.
You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
The same year, Aaron became a big brother. This event was exciting for everyone in the family. And Aaron was no exception. I can still picture his little face tightening up with excitement and hear him say, "I love Jonathan so much—I just want to squeeze his guts out!" The fact that everyone else in the family thought that he just might do that very thing was a little scary. But we kept a cautious eye on the baby and Aaron and watched as the little strong-willed child assumed the role of nurturing big brother.
And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:21
A Closer Look with Aaron
My earliest memory of being a strong-willed child and having an intense desire to be in charge of my own life was when I was four years old. We bought a small house in town and proceeded to tear down our old farmhouse in order to build a new home on that location. Even though Matthew and I were little, there were things we did to help my dad with his project. Because there were raw materials in the old house that could be utilized in our new one, he was literally tearing the house down rather than burning it. One of our jobs was to sort various building supplies, like hardwood, from the useless things, like shingles.
One day we were carrying materials from one pile to another. It goes without saying that this was a silly job. As a four-year-old, I could see little importance in simply reorganizing the junk! And if such a stupid job really was legitimate, for goodness' sake, let's get a tractor going to at least make the task easier and more fun. I made that suggestion, and it fell on deaf ears. Dad, for some reason—probably because a tractor was really not necessary—said that our work assignment was NOT going to change.
If there is one thing a strong-willed child dislikes, it is doing any task or assignment that he deems useless—especially if he suggested a "better way" to do the meaningless job, and it was rejected. And on that particular day, that is precisely what happened! I wanted my idea to be honestly considered. Using a tractor made complete sense to me. I wanted to defend my position, but I wasn't given that opportunity.
My older brother might have thought the sorting job was a bad idea too, and he may even have liked my idea to use a tractor; but he didn't choose to cause a problem. I did. I simply decided that I would not do what Dad had ordered and expected. Dad would have to pay the price for not considering my great idea. I wouldn't work as hard as he wanted me to, and he would have to shift some of his attention to me and away from his agenda. I remember Matthew telling me that my slowdown strike was a bad idea. When Dad noticed my manipulation of the situation, slowing down but not completely disobeying (a gentle way to say defiance under control), he told me precisely what I was supposed to do, and he also told me the consequences for disobedience. I would be paddled. I pondered my options, much to my brother's discomfort. "You better do it, Aaron," he said. "Dad's serious!" I knew that he was serious, but I had to decide if my work slowdown, impeding Dad's progress, was more important than the pain I'd receive. And, guess what? I decided to go for the paddling.
As I cried, Dad announced that he expected me to do as I was told. As you may guess, I weighed the pros and cons of another confrontation. My brother (the compliant one) by now determined that I needed my head examined. "Come on, Aaron, do what you're supposed to do." He could not fathom the thought that winning my case was so important that I would pay a price. That was the first time, but not the last, that I realized we were wired differently. He couldn't understand my strong-willed nature, and I couldn't understand why he couldn't understand. (But I did appreciate his sympathy when I decided to go for a second round before my Dad was able to make his point that defiance would not win.)
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
* * *
By the time Aaron reached school age, there was no doubt in my mind that Aaron was a high-maintenance child. In my thinking, that title "high-maintenance" put most of the responsibility on us as parents. We didn't have a label or an excuse for behavior that needed to be corrected. Just as a fine-tuned race car demands more sophisticated and time-consuming maintenance, I realized that our potential "top performer" demanded more sophisticated (read: frequent and intense) effort. As he prepared to go to the adventure called school, I prayed that the adults who would have his attention for the majority of the day would appreciate his attributes, keep him under control, and help to mold and nurture his development.
Because John and I are both teachers by training, we instilled in Aaron a respect for education and the teaching profession. He also knew that we would reinforce any discipline administered in school. It was our hope that the teachers would care about Aaron enough to control and encourage him. Some did, some did not.CHAPTER 2
Avoiding the Discipline Detour
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. Proverbs 3:11–12
The responsibility of disciplining a strong-willed child is by far one of the largest potential detours in the journey. Over and over again the question arises, "Does a two-year-old really need discipline?" The question in return is, "Does your two-year-old choose to defy you?" And if the answer is "yes," that is also the answer to question number one. The time to begin to discipline or train your child is not based on a chronological date or stage, but it is based on the individual development and needs of your child.
I knew a young couple that announced from the beginning of their daughter's life that they were not going to discipline her until she was able to talk. To them, words would indicate understanding on the part of their child, and that was the guideline they established. Although their daughter was still not talking at eighteen months old, they continued with their strategy: "no discipline until Mandi is able to talk to us." Mandi was no dummy, and I watched her get by with some pretty defiant behavior while keeping her mouth shut. In fact, it is my theory (never to be proven or disproved) that Mandi was capable of talking long before she finally uttered her first words. She knew that sooner or later she would talk, and the jig would be up. Then her parents would go to "part two" of the program and begin to discipline her. She held out as long as she could, until around the age of two as I recall, and then she gave in. If Mandi was a strong-willed child like Aaron, she might still be silent today! A certain age or stage is not necessarily the perfect indicator of when discipline should begin. You need to discipline your child when he chooses to defy you. And there is usually little doubt when a strong-willed child chooses defiance.
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Disciplining a strong-willed child can be frustrating. The ability of a young strong-willed child to keep arguing when most adults are exhausted often leads to the incorrect conclusion that discipline does not work. Again, that is an incorrect conclusion. But in order to see the benefits of loving discipline, there are some very important "Rules of the Road" for disciplining children. First of all, discipline should NEVER be done in anger. When you do this, you have lost control. The reason you are disciplining your child is to control his wayward behavior and to teach him correct behavior. An out-of-control adult is not effective and is actually counterproductive.
There were times when I found myself angry because of the behavior of Aaron. At that point, I left the room to regain my composure and returned to administer the appropriate discipline. Did I always do that? No, and my older sons developed a stand-up comedy routine based on me swinging my arm wildly into the backseat of our car, hoping to connect with one of them and stop their fighting, arguing, complaining—any or all of the above. In those instances, I was attempting to control my children's behavior when I wasn't even successful at controlling my own. That goofiness did NOTHING to gain control of the poor behavior (except maybe distract them as they dodged and giggled at my ridiculous actions). That was not discipline—it was slapstick comedy with the potential to cause an automobile accident.
There are two more important points to be considered in the discipline of a strong-willed child of any age. Number one, you must pick your battles wisely. If you chose to, you could fight all day with a strong-willed child and exasperate your child. What is really important? Not a bad question to ask yourself.
I was doing a book signing in a major metropolitan area, and a young woman came into the store with her toddler in a stroller. The two-year-old was wearing a biking helmet and my first thought was, "My goodness, this mom must be a very poor stroller driver!" As she made it to the front of the line, she pointed down at her little darling and said, "He wanted to wear it, and I decided it wasn't worth a fight." How true! (And how wise.)
When Aaron and Matthew were just twenty-one months and four years old, respectively, the family made a very long trip by car to California. My husband, John, an Air Force Reserve pilot, was scheduled for some additional flight training, and the reporting time was not negotiable. We loaded the kids into our sedan and started on a fifty-two-hour road trip. In order to maintain peace and harmony, we planned to do as much traveling around-the-clock as we could, and I organized many diversions for the boys. I hung men's shirts on the hooks by each of their seats. The bottom hems were sewn shut. Inside the shirts-turned-bags were all sorts of goodies, including metal cookie sheets that were used for desktops and magnetic playing boards. I wrapped up little toys and markers (each individually packaged) as well as magnetic letters and shapes. Every waking hour each boy was given a new package to unwrap. Believe it or not, this kept the boys happy during the trip.
After we were in the car for about thirty-six hours, we decided to stop at a restaurant rather than eat another of the lunches I packed. The boys enjoyed their meal, and then we allowed them to run around the area in which we were seated. There were no other patrons close enough to be bothered by their footloose behavior, although I'm sure some wondered why any parent in his right mind would allow such commotion. We decided that corralling them was not a battle we wanted to fight. After all, they would soon be corralled for the remainder of the trip, still some sixteen hours. What battles do you want to fight?
Excerpted from Journey of a Strong-Willed Child by Kendra Smiley, Aaron Smiley, John Smiley, Ali Childers. Copyright © 2009 Kendra Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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