“Spirited” children, or maybe “strong-willed” or, yup, “difficult.” There are courses, books, blogs dedicated to them. But… what is really a strong-willed child, and is that a bad thing?
In a blurb for a course for parents, they speak about challenging behavior, tantrums, and blow ups, power struggles… and “The spirited child can easily overwhelm parents, leaving them feeling frustrated and ineffective.” I don’t think we’re quite there, but yes, it can be tiring having kids who will not hesitate to point out the weaknesses in your argument or request. It can be annoying. And exhausting.
One of the characteristics observed in very young children on the spectrum, and in those with ADHD (and other diagnoses, I’m sure), is that “they want to do things their way” and they are “stubborn.” Neurodivergent children (and people) do see life differently. And, consequently, they react differently. Some norms and rules make no sense to them, and, under scrutiny, some of those rules would make no sense to many neurotypicals, either.
Yes, when I was constantly trying to have them do things my way and when I wanted it, I ended up frustrated. A couple of years ago, I was trying to get my son to clean his room. I was sure that cleaning your room was a crucial life skill. A basic rule of life, right? My arguing with him and asking him to clean his room would lead to arguments and more arguments, and a couple of times I ended up crying. What it didn’t lead to is a consistently clean room. He and I managed to clean his room twice, after many sessions of many hours spread over several days. I even took a picture! And a couple of days later, then the room went back to its usual state.
But then a couple of things happened: one is that I spoke to his amazing speech therapist—who was helping him with executive function: organizing, planning and carrying out tasks and projects, among other skills—and, while talking about his challenges with executive function, she commented, nonchalantly: “and I bet his room is a mess.” Her explanation is that for people with ADHD it is extremely hard to decide, for example, what to discard or give away; or to decide between two items. In ways, I was subjecting my son to torture, because part of my frustration was based on assuming my son thinks like I do, so I was forcing him to do stuff like I would do it.
Then I thought about myself. Normally, I have absolutely no problem with decision making. Some years ago, though, I would go to the grocery store at night, after waking up very early to go to work, coming home to help with whatever was needed and to take care of my toddler and my son, who was in his terrible twos at the time (my husband was with them during the workday). Anyway, I would go to the store and would be looking at yogurt and, for the life of me, I could not decide between strawberry yogurt and raspberry yogurt. And I would tell myself that it was ridiculous that I had already spent ten minutes looking at yogurt, for Heaven’s sake, and could not make up my mind. My solution was to stop going to the supermarket at night. Period. But… what if there was no escape? What if it doesn’t matter how tired you are, what time of the day it is, or how much you worked that day? What if every single time you go to the store you struggle like that? Was I adding one more frustration to my son’s day? Was it needed? Is cleaning your room decisive to your success as an adult?
The other thing that happened is that I’ve been teaching a summer class at the university where I work. The class focuses on study skills and success as a college student. One of the things we emphasize is the need to be intrinsically motivated. That is one of the main factors that will lead to success in life. Extrinsic motivation, which is given by others, can be given in the guise of prizes or punishment. It has been demonstrated that neither works. Even when it apparently leads to continuous improvement of a skill—think tiger moms and piano—it will not lead to the person enjoying that skill or way of living. And it definitely doesn’t create intrinsic motivation and doesn’t foster resilience or grit, or a growth mindset—the belief that you can improve in any subject or skill, if you work at it, and that intelligence and talent are not fixed and unchangeable.
So… I was trying to embed ideas about intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset and grit to my students, but wanted my son to do something he didn’t see a point in doing and that was extremely tough for him, just for the sake of… what? His room is not open to the public. I don’t spend much time in it. I don’t read the books that are inside, nor do I wear the clothes in his closet. So, at that point, I explained to him what I was thinking, and why I thought it was important to have a clean room, etc., and we reached a compromise: his room does have to have space for me to walk on, so I can go in and say good night. And it has to have a clear path to the window where we have the emergency ladder. Other than that, it is his room and he has the authority to decide what gets done in there. Common areas, however, do fall under my authority, and he has to do the chores related to those spaces, and try to keep them tidy. I bet some parents would frown upon our idea of “tidy” but, well, they have their own house they can keep impeccable.
That episode with the room cleaning has been, as far as I remember, the most prolonged and exhausting with my son. Others have been frustrating too, but I’ve come to realize that it depends a great deal on my perspective and how I deal with it. For instance, he is in charge of the dishes that have to be hand-washed. I was nagging him and he would totally forget anyway (really totally forget; he’s not the type to pretend in order to get out of a chore. If he doesn’t want to do it, he’ll argue about it and let you know what he thinks). Instead of getting angry, washing the pans myself, lecturing him, what started happening was that, hey, we have no clean pans, meaning I cannot cook breakfast. Natural consequences are great teachers! He’s doing much, much better in that respect. And yes, there are many more examples, with both kids.
Overall, I must say I prefer my kids to be argumentative. In fact, it sort of worries me when they give in too easily (just don’t tell them I said that!). It looks like I like it difficult, eh?
Well… on one side, there are many, many benefits for teens and adults who were argumentative, stubborn and pigheaded as children. I do believe it shows that they put more thought into their actions. They don’t just do whatever you tell them, they evaluate the request, and decide if it is actually something that should be done. Sure, it is frustrating for me, but I know (hope?) that if they react like that to me, one of the biggest authorities in their lives, they will do the same with other authority figures and other commands or requests. It also helps to withstand peer pressure: strong-willed (stubborn, pigheaded, obstinate) children will not give in as easily as others who are comfortable with compliance and following others’ lead. Strong-willed people are more likely to stay on the path they want to follow, despite being told they won’t succeed, or that society will not approve, or that it is impossible. They will just keep on going.
On the other side… I was like that. Well, probably a bit more obedient. After all, I did clean my room. Or maybe my parents were less willing to debate with me, than I am with my kiddos. In any case, I’ve heard enough stories of me not giving in one inch as a kid, to know I was fairly stubborn. And still am. I do believe that being pigheaded has helped me to be daring and just take the risk in my academic, personal, and professional endeavors. It has allowed me to change jobs and professional paths, to live abroad several times and, finally, immigrate and establish myself with my family in the US (my husband is American).
I want my children to take risks, to study whatever they really want, without fear of what other people may think or how much money they will earn (or the money they won’t earn), or how hard it is. I want them to go ahead and live abroad and face different cultures and life styles. I want them to work, intern, and volunteer in anything that calls them. I want them to become self-advocates and request the accommodations and services they deserve and need.
I don’t want them to be obedient. I want them to decide what they want to do, and to think twice before following orders. I want them to take advantage of their thinking styles, of the unique wiring of their brains. I don’t want them to extinguish their sparkle and doubt themselves and their decisions. I am not raising them to be my “good” compliant son and daughter. I’m raising them to become autonomous adults, and independent thinkers. Leaders, not followers.