Cyma Shapiro Chats with Cynthia Tobias, author, You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) – The Revised and Updated Edition of Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child
Q: Hi, Cynthia – thanks for giving us your time, today. I understand that you were considered “strong-willed,” as a child. I’d imagine that trait has not left you! What caused you to delve into this topic and eventually write a book?
It became increasingly evident that nothing can put a wedge into even the finest family like having a Strong-Willed Child—and almost every family has at least one. This strong-willed nature is a wonderful and powerful force, and when it’s guided in the right direction, the results are often amazing. But a strong will can too easily go sideways, and that’s when the trouble starts for everyone. Over the past 10-15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to and working with strong-willed folks of all ages. This book is much more than my insights and strategies—it represents the hearts and lives of literally thousands of strong-willed children. What you read is essentially a consensus among us that is offered to help you understand and keep a positive relationship with an SWC without having to compromise accountability or surrender authority.
Q: Did your mother/caregivers/teachers know how to handle you?
I believe my parents figured out a lot of things instinctively, mostly because they were both focused on keeping our family strong and on emphasizing a positive perspective on almost everything. The only reason I didn’t really pose a challenge for most teachers is that I was always an introverted kid, and rather than openly confronting and pushing back against authority, I was usually looking for quiet ways to simply circumvent the authority I felt was unfair or unbearable.
Q: I find it interesting that you’ve now revised your original paperback, which is over 10 years old. What do you find are the new challenges of the present era and in what fashion do you find that children or the raising of children has now changed?
One of the best reasons to update the book was the fact that my own strong-willed child, Mike, has grown up, and the strategies in the first book have proven themselves to be reliable and effective. The other primary reason for a new version is to add new tried-and-true insights from so many wonderful SWCs over the past 10 years. I’ve been able to streamline and condense practical tips for frustrated parents, and I’ve added an extremely valuable feature—The Strong-Willed Child Emergency Kit—that can help prevent a total meltdown. I’ve also put in a list of the Top Ten Tips to Bring Out the Best in a Strong-Willed Child of Any Age. I think you’ll find this new edition a refreshing blend of the original book and some unexpected ideas you can immediately find useful.
Q: How do you define a “strong-willed” child? Do you have a scale for this?
It’s important to understand that strong will, in and of itself, is a very positive trait. It’s only when it takes the wrong direction that it becomes a negative force. You want every child to have a certain amount of strong will—that strength of conviction and confidence to take on a world that rarely seeks to accommodate them. The Strong-Willed Child has a strong dose of this conviction and confidence, and on my scale of 0-12, we define the SWC as being 8-12. (See the checklist on pp. 13-15) A strong SWC is not easily daunted, not easily discouraged, and is willing to believe that anything is possible. Some of the greatest thinkers, inventors and leaders have been highly strong willed. I frequently tell parents that their Strong-Willed Child is going to change the world—one way or the other!
Q: When determining whether a child is or isn’t “strong-willed,” the underlying causes may be very different. Given this fact, is the course of action the same?
There are some basic principles and strategies that can serve as a very effective framework for dealing with your SWC, no matter what the circumstances might be. If you can get a handle on those, and practice frequently, the chances are good that you won’t be taken off guard when an unexpected situation arises.
Q: You state that these same children have “firm convictions, high spirits, and a sense of adventure” – the makings for a great adult. How best to foster those qualities, in addition to providing appropriate responses and/or punishments?
Focus on the strengths. You can’t build on weakness, and the more you criticize and negatively respond to your SWC, the more your relationship will deteriorate. Now this doesn’t mean you let SWCs get by with bad behavior or that you just give in to what they want. It means you master the art of a firm, calm voice and demeanor as you identify a strength that has taken the wrong direction. For example: “Wow—that was a good one. You’re sure the master of a quick comeback. I think you realize what you said is inappropriate—I can’t let you get by with that. Sure love the way your mind works, though—if only we can get it turned in the right direction!”
There are some excellent strategies in the book for appropriate responses to inappropriate comments and effective and meaningful correction for bad behaviors. In fact, there are some suggestions in this book that work almost like magic….
Q: The apparent surge in “defiant children” seems to mirror the increase in the number of Indigo kids – that is, highly sensitive beings with a clear sense of self-definition and a strong feeling that they need to make a significant difference in the world. Do you have any thoughts regarding this?
Again, so much depends on your perspective and approach. Virtually all SWCs will tell you we believe we can make a difference in the world. But we can become most defiant when someone else tries to define for us what our potential or capabilities should be. And remember, “defiant” is not the same as “strong-willed.” Defiance is a negative behavior, not an inherent trait.
Q: A strong-willed toddler must be handled differently than a teenager. Can you amplify the similarities and the differences?
I think one of the best features of this new book is the chapter that guides parents through some relatively predictable patterns of strong-willed behavior that show up in different ages and phases. It helps to get a better handle on what’s “normal.” It’s also encouraging, however, to see that the basic principles for keeping a strong and positive relationship with your strong-willed child stay consistent throughout their lives, even when they become adults. At any age, you want to find positive ways to let your SWCs have as much control over their own actions as possible. It’s tempting to just dress your toddler or tie his shoe or carry her up the stairs; it’s natural to just sit down by your procrastinating teenager and insist on helping with the homework assignment, but sometimes it’s critical that you step back and find ways to let your SWC figure out what to do. Be there to guide, not to dictate.
Q: As a strong-willed parent, I found that your “few simple questions” gave me pause for much thought. “Is he/she well fed? Are you making sure that he/she gets enough rest? Is your own schedule so hectic and chaotic that it’s placing stress on the rest of the family?” unnerved me enough that I’ve started examining my own motives for controlling many of these often unmanageable situations. Can you address this dilemma?
In one of my other books, I have a chapter titled “Strong-Willed Moms Who Got the Kids They Deserve”. I know I certainly did! My mother would just nod her head sometimes when I pointed out a strong-willed behavior in my son that frustrated me. “I know what you mean,” she would say—sometimes not so sympathetically! The bottom line is, as a strong-willed parent, I often find I can dish it out, but I can’t take it. I find myself saying things to my SWC that I know I wouldn’t do if I were him. And yet it’s so difficult to back off and think about how I might react if I were in his place. Sometimes it helps to have a code word. For example, I told my boys that if I ever talked to them in a way that was bossy and rude. They could just say “ouch” right in the middle of the conversation. On the rare occasions when they said it, I got the chance to stop and say, “What? What did I say?” They could make their point, and I could clarify or ask for a do-over.
Q: Midlife Mothers grapple with so many external variables which heightens daily living – aging parents, two generations of children, peri-menopause, etc. A “strong-willed” child may topple the scales and create a sense of overwhelm in a parent. Please share your thoughts.
In the book you’ll find practical, immediately useful strategies for not letting your SWC push the buttons that drive you crazy. (Sometimes we do it just because we can.) If you keep your perspective and consciously choose to build and maintain a strong relationship with your SWC, you’ll be amazed at how much grace you’ll receive in return on those days when you need it most.
Q: What one positive result do you feel that being “strong-willed” has provided you?
I have the confidence to take charge of my own success. I don’t fade back and wait for others to do what I know needs to be done. Thank goodness I’ve mellowed with age and experience—but I still love having the strength of will to stand up for what I believe and step out for the risk of another adventure.
Q: What one message would you like to leave beleaguered parents with?
Your Strong-Willed Child will challenge you in ways you never expected and, sometimes in ways you never wanted. But you have been given the amazing opportunity to parent a child who truly has the potential to change the world in a unique and wonderful way. It does take more time and effort, but the payoff is incredible—and it’s definitely worth the trouble!
Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, M. Ed., is founder and CE of AppLeSt. L.L.C. (Applied Learning Styles). Her background includes over twenty-three years of private practice and business ownership, eight years of teaching in public high school, and six years in law enforcement. Tobias is a best-selling author of numerous titles including The Way They Learn, Every Child Can Succeed, and Bringing Out the Best In Your Child. She and her husband live in the Seattle, WA area and are the parents of college-age twin boys.