Willful Children – by Kirk Martin of Celebrate Calm

I just took my two nieces swimming in the ocean. Faith is 8 and Sarah is 10. Faith giggles at every wave crashing over her head, spits out the salt water, and asks for more. She’s carefree, sunshine, no fear, laughing. When I tell her I’m proud of her, she says without a hint of boasting, “I’m a brave girl.”


Sarah is cautious, she holds on a little tighter. I sense her get quiet when bigger waves come. She’s anxious. I know because she’s the little version of me. I still get like that in uncomfortable situations–hesitant, hold on a little tighter. She laughs, but it’s not carefree like Faith. When I tell her I’m proud of her, she asks, “Really?” and wants me to repeat it.


Faith listens to her Mom and follows directions immediately. Kids like Faith are easy to love and easier to like. Easy. Joyful.


Sarah hears the directions, thinks about them, then calculates her response in her brain and heart. I can see it, feel it, when her Mom signals for us to come in. Kids like Sarah require more patience. Partly because we often misread their actions and misinterpret their motives.


See, when Sarah hesitates and calculates, she’s not just intentionally being strong-willed and difficult. But that’s how we see it as parents and teachers. “She’s just being willful and obstinate.” I get it. Her actions and words sure look like that.


But if you were to reach down into her heart, you’d see a little girl hesitant and calculating because she doesn’t always feel safe…yes, she’s often trying to control the situation and do what she wants, but not because she’s some awful person.


It’s because she’s calculating what feels safe and comfortable to her. Because unknowns–like crashing waves and your uncle letting go of your hands to force you to swim on your own for three seconds–are scary as hell. No, not to those of you who are like Faith. You love the adventure, thrive on that. But inside, Sarah’s little brain and heart are freaking out.


No, you don’t “let her get away with it” or let her just do things her own way. But you do need to be patient and give her a sense of safety and ownership, a little step at a time. I didn’t throw her into the waves–I waited until it was calm and then asked her to let go for two seconds. I did it repeatedly–and you’re going to have to go slowly with these kids because they have to get comfortable with their discomfort first. Don’t push so much, don’t dismiss their concerns.


When Sarah began to freak out (you can tell by the quiet and different kind of breathing), I acknowledged it, held on, and helped her work through it because that builds confidence. It’s work, but it’s worth it.


I want you to see into your kids’ hearts. Behind the outward disobedience and backtalk is often times just a scared little kid trying to find a safe place and feel understood. It doesn’t mean you don’t discipline-it just changes the spirit with which you discipline (remember that discipline literally means “to teach”).

At times, you are that same scared little boy or girl lashing out or hiding, just trying to feel safe in a scary world. So be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with your kids. Be gentle with your spouse.


Your job is to teach your child that they can surrender and listen to you because you are trustworthy, you are a safe place.

They don’t have to hide or lash out because they are free to face their fears with a patient parent who understands them.

Caution: it’s easy to become distant toward and even not like challenging kids. But DO NOT allow this to fester. You must reconcile and learn more subtle ways to communicate with your child. Or the defiance will escalate.


Listen to the podcast here: https://celebratecalm.simplecast.com/episodes/disciplining-calculating-willful-1aab90e3

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