Stubborn or strong-willed?

Tuesday, 30.01.2018

Imagine this. You’re rushing to settle your groceries at the supermarket after a long day at work and your 4 year old is persisting over that forbidden chocolate all the way to the cashier. Your final ‘NO’ sends him into a hissy fit, sprawled on the floor kicking and becomes an eyebrow raiser to the rest of the supermarket. This is the point where your head floods with questions on whether you should just buy him the chocolate to stop the ‘drama’, stand firm on your ground, yell at him or just drag him out of the store. 

Every child is precious, dear and a joy to raise except in those moments when stubbornness raises its head. Whether we call them stubborn or strong-willed, parents agree the head-butting situations that arise from this trait can be exhausting to both parties. At the Asian Parenting held on 12 March, we raised some questions in a panel discussion involving Mr Teo Chee Keong, Founder of People Impact and Ms Audrey Tan, Principal of Learning Vision @ Raffles. Here are some insights into the discussion.   

Strong-willed vs stubborn
Strong-willed may very often be seen as a euphemism for stubborn behaviour but Mr Teo suggested that parents associate their kids strive for positive actions to be a sign of strong will. Examples cited were in relation to competitiveness in sport, school and achieving excellence. All other tantrum-throwing behaviour over the selection of clothes, foods or anything unproductive were classified as stubbornness.  

Dealing with stubborn situations
Very often stubborn behaviour is displayed as a sign of protest against routine to which the child is averse, be it bath-time, sleep-time or meal-time. As both parents and kids approach these forbidden times with dread, the propensity for conflict and for emotions to get the better of reason becomes greater. Both Ms Tan and Mr Teo advised on parents taking a step back from their usual proposition and offered tips that worked in their respective parenting situations.                                                

  • Don’t tell kids what to do or not do – Hearing ‘No’ further fortifies your child’s obstinacy which in turn frustrates the parents and we have a multiplier effect of anger. 
  • Tell kids what you are going to do – Mr Teo cited an example of how he got his son to enjoy shampooing his hair by getting into the shower with him and playing with shampoo lather till his son asked him for some to try.
  • Give options – Ms Tan opined that stubborn kids love feeling empowered. “So let them choose,” she went. If your child refuses to eat vegetables, give him an option of having his favourite ice cream or taking him to the playground after he has even half the portion. He could then feel that he chose to eat the vegetables rather than having been compelled in the first place.
  • Find out why kids are not doing what they were supposed to do – Sometimes, getting your child talking about her fears or resentment against the specific routine may enable you to appreciate their untoward behaviour and seek an objective solution.

Course for concern
Watching a stubborn kid may heighten fears about their behaviour manifesting into rebellion, anger and rudeness as they grow older. At the same time, we have also seen many kids outgrow this phase of throwing tantrums and turn out to be perfectly behaved ladies and gentlemen. On preventing behaviour from worsening with age, Ms Tan felt that kids do not naturally outgrow this phase. Early exposure to people – both young and old- hone the collaboration skills in children allowing them to empathise with different people’s needs.

Mr Teo, being a professional in children’s behavioural management, reiterated the importance of early intervention to ensure kids are steered in the right direction and prevent stubbornness from morphing into rebellious outbursts. Having said that, Mr Teo reassured that all is not lost when kids display stubborn behaviour as toddlers or pre-schoolers. Some do in fact take a natural course of developing stubbornness into a positive trait of holding strong beliefs in discipline, responsibility and task management as they grow older.

Modeling the good behaviour cultivated in school
7 out of 12 parents interviewed agreed that their children had no disciplinary issues in school and on the contrary were commended for displaying leadership, team-spiritedness and compliance during school hours. Alas, they are the same ones who transform into recalcitrant kids at home. What then happens in school to elicit compliance?

According to Ms Tan, collaborative work and the environment where children are modeling after other kids socially engineer them to present a more docile front at school. The need to work in groups and achieve a common outcome usually takes the “I” and “me” out of their minds to focus on achieving the task at hand. This becomes harder to model in the home environment where the child assumes centrality in everything the parents or caregivers do.

Whilst emulating a school environment may be difficult – owing to the lack of children at home – both Mr Teo and Ms Tan encouraged parents to get kids to take ownership over certain tasks and steer them in the direction of how you have planned the day. If mealtimes were going to be a struggle, get your kids to set the table with their favourite cutlery, make them responsible for garnishing meals and let them have a hand in cleaning up along with you. That way, children will feel responsible for ensuring everyone, including themselves, finish up their meals.   

Golden rules at your fingertips
In summary, both Mr Teo and Ms Tan had some really interesting rules for parents to imbibe and practise on a daily basis to avoid hair-pulling situations.

  • ​Give children choices – Choices empower kids and are instructions packaged sneakily to allow them to decide
  • ​C.P.F – Be Consistent, Patient and Firm with your child. Children are governed by habits and will start complying once they know where you stand.
  • Encourage collaboration – Children are never too young to participate in domestic tasks so long as you’re supervising them

As Mr Teo aptly added, “Don’t let your four-year-old make you behave like a four-year-old,” everyone in the room broke into a knowing chuckle.

The need to work in groups and achieve a common outcome usually takes the “I” and “me” out of their minds to focus on achieving the task at hand. C.P.F – Be Consistent, Patient and Firm with your child. Children are governed by habits and will start complying once they know where you stand. 

Let us guide you through the parenting journey and receive updates on parenting tips, freebies & promotions. Join our community and like us on Facebook



Share your thoughts! If you have a similar story to share, tell us! We’d love to hear from you. Or you may also request an article on topics you’d like to read about.

Find Out More


Join our mailing list to receive updates, promotions and news from Kids World!