My 4-year-old son Eddie is the most strong-willed child I've ever had to deal with. He's very intelligent and independent. He could stay busy all day all on his own if I would let him, and he really doesn't bother anybody most of the time. Once every few days he insists on getting his way with his older and younger sisters, and it's quite obnoxious. He isn't very obedient. Even though I don't think obedience is the most important thing, I do want him to do what I say when it's important — without a struggle. His basic attitude is, "I won't!" How can I get him to be a better-behaved member of the family? I should add that his teachers have all reported the same behavior.
A I agree that a child should do what a parent or teacher tells him to do when it's important. I've noticed that most parents tell children to do this, or not do that, way, way more often than when it is truly important.
Here are some strategies to get Eddie's behavior on a better track:
1 Refrain from calling out lots of commands. Decide what things are worth making an issue over, and stick to them. At a quiet and appropriate moment, tell Eddie that you can see he's older now, and very intelligent, and that you don't have to remind him about so many things anymore. Say, "From now on, I'll expect you to manage yourself and do sensible and cooperative things. So when I ask you to do something, you can be sure it's something I think is important. I will expect you to do it without an argument or dawdling. I won't tell you so much stuff to do, or not to do, and when I do ask you to do something you will do it pleasantly, deal?" When situations arise, you might say something like:
"It's dinner time now. I see you're in the middle of building a wonderful block tower, so you'll need a few extra minutes to get to a stopping place. You can leave it and work on it more (after dinner, tomorrow)."
When we show respect for a child's projects, the child will be more cooperative. If, in several minutes, Eddie needs a reminder to come to dinner, provide it. If he still doesn't come, go over to him, put an arm around him, and say, "Let's be fair. I gave you extra time to do what you needed to do, and now it's time for you to do what I need you to do. Thank you. Here we go."
Family mealtime is important because it builds an opportunity for sharing the news of the day and conversation. It also means that grownups can fix and clean up food once, and not be servants who must run back and forth to cupboard and refrigerator at each child's beck and call. Giving children plenty of space for doing things their way usually causes them to be more agreeable when you explain that now it's time to do something your way. Conversely, the bossiest, most authoritarian parents often find themselves with the most defiant children (especially when they become teens and dare to defy). The goal is to develop a fair, cooperative relationship with each of our children.
* 2 Acknowledge his strengths. Consider what a blessing it is that your son keeps busy most of the time without bothering anyone. It's super that he's so resourceful! Lots of parents wish their children could entertain themselves. When he insists on things that are unreasonable with his sisters, get everyone involved to sit down and discuss what each person wants. Help Eddie see that sometimes what he wants happens, and sometimes what each of his sisters wants happens. Do some insisting yourself. Eddie has rights and so do his sisters.
* 3 Speak with Eddie's teacher. Tell her that you understand her concern that Eddie doesn't always want to do what the group is doing. Much of your child's life will be spent in groups: school, work place, the new family he will probably eventually form, and community. Eddie needs to learn to get along appropriately in a group.
However, in my opinion, the typical classroom rather overdoes its emphasis on group vs. individual. I think there should be a balance. As it too often is, the balance is that of a seesaw with a heavy kid (the group) on one end and the lightweight on the other. It doesn't work that way. You may want to think this over and tactfully discuss these ideas with the teacher.
In any group, there's room for a variety of roles. With his excellent ability to manage himself and to engage in productive activity, Eddie can serve as a desirable model for his peers, especially if you and his teacher frame it that way. Adults can make the class think of a child as a disobedient "bad boy" or as a respected, self-propelling person with motivation and the capacity to direct himself.
When we think creatively about additional choices that we could give a strong-minded child, we find a lot of them. Viewing Eddie as something other than oppositional — as exceptionally able, as capable of a mature degree of self-direction for a 4-year-old, and as having high self-esteem — may help you and his teacher work more effectively with this independent child.