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Stubborn Kids

From her earliest breaths, my daughter Alexis was a force to be reckoned with. As an infant, she shooed away the cereal spoon; as a toddler, she rebounded from her bed all night long. When she was in preschool, her teachers would tell us that her strong will made her a natural leader. We thought of her more as a little dictator.

Alexis had figured out the great secret of life: Nobody can force you to do anything you absolutely don't want to do.

Watching her unapologetically go after what she wanted always left me half mortified, half secretly impressed. My eagerness to please has sometimes made me cave when I shouldn't. Yup, that's me, serial yes-woman for every party sales rep who needs a patsy—er, hostess. But Alexis can stand up for herself, a trait that will serve her well all through life.

Still, raising stubborn kids is tricky. It's up to you to show them they don't rule the world—without teaching them to be wimps.

Bullheaded by nature?

Some kids seem to be born willful. Alexis certainly was: From day one, she'd scream her little head off unless we toted her around in a baby carrier.

Such resolve often doesn't soften, either. As demanding babies morph into toddlers, the "You can't make me!" factor surfaces. Of course, most kids this age are hardheaded. But what sets the genetically inflexible apart is the ferocity and persistence with which they do battle. "When my oldest, Gabrielle, was a toddler, she'd occasionally put up a fuss about something. I would think, why are you being like this today? Then I'd realize it's just the age, we'd get through it, and the next day, she'd be fine," says Erin Bailey of Germantown, Tennessee. "But when my son Mick was three, every day was like that, over everything. He just didn't cave at all."

I remember a doctor's appointment when Alexis was 4, when she dug in so hard, and for so long, she nearly made the doctor cry. We weren't even able to complete her physical that day and had to reschedule the appointment! She returned with her father instead of me—that simple switch changed the dynamic and Alexis was okay.

The bright side of boldness

There are positives to kids' toughness. For instance, Mick Bailey isn't intimidated by older kids. On a visit to a children's museum when he was 3, Mick held his own with a bunch of rowdy grade-schoolers. "It didn't matter that the other kids there were bigger," says Bailey. "He took charge of everything he was playing with."

Stubbornness also often comes with a steadfast ability to focus, and that can boost learning. At age 5, Alexis, by sheer grit, taught herself to ride a two-wheeler-in a single afternoon. And Bailey says that Mick was buttoning and zipping at a much younger age than his more laid-back older sister. "He was just more determined," she says.

Laurie Maniacci of Naperville, Illinois, says her daughter's strong temperament has helped her work out problems with other kids. Once, she was having a hard time with some boys who wouldn't let her play princess. Five-year-old Emily hung in there until she'd made her case for including princesses in the boys' game. "They soon saw things her way," says Maniacci. Such stick-to-itiveness has also turned Emily into a leader. "She rallied her friends to put on a play, and then directed them. It was amazing," says her mom.

Lisa Oppenheimer also writes for FamilyFun and Fodor's Travel Guides.

Turning stubborn into strong-willed

There's a mighty fine line between being a leader and being bossy. And even on a good day, stubborn can be downright irritating. To tame your child's bossiness:

Let him be heard

Sometimes, plain old listening helps. Alexis was most likely to try throwing her weight around if she felt powerless, like when stuck on a playdate with a child she didn't like. It's easy to forget that children—especially stubborn ones—can have strong preferences. While I was hardly ready to consult Alexis on all of life's decisions, giving her say in some matters—like the right to nix a get-together before I summarily accepted—made things easier on both of us. She saw that she needed to be respectful if she found herself in undesired company, but took comfort in knowing that she could speak her mind and be heard.

Such open communication has also worked for Maureen Trettel, a mom of seven in Milford, Massachusetts. One winter, her son Joseph, who was 7, wanted to slide on an ice patch near their house without a helmet. "He kept at me and at me. I wanted to yell 'Stop! You're driving me crazy,'" says Trettel. "But all he wanted was for me to listen," she says. Taking a minute to hear his argument—"It's not as much fun with a helmet, and I don't go as fast!" —quelled the fight. "After that, he didn't even care that the answer was still no," says Trettel.

On the other hand, by listening, you may find a child's argument has merit. "If we have five more minutes on this puzzle, we can finish it!" is worthy of consideration, and your willingness to adjust is a lesson in compromise.

Teach her about give and take

Telling your child always to be the "good" kid—the one who automatically hands over the swing if another child wants it—can spark rebellion or send the message that constantly putting yourself second is the best way to go through life. Instead, kids need to understand that they may have to give up something they want to get something else they want—and that being demanding can have consequences they won't like. If your child refuses to share her toys, for instance, point out that if she doesn't, her friend won't want to share her toys, either. But if they take turns playing with each toy, they'll both get to play with everything.

At the playground, Erin Bailey would tell her son, "I know you want to be first to slide down the fire pole, but it's okay if Charlie is first sometimes. If he isn't, he might not want to play with you." Do this even with little kids, who may not seem old enough to get it: Better to prepare them for compromise than spring it on them at age 4.

Lead by example

While we'd like to think our kids are the only unreasonable ones in the family, there's some truth to the expression "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Perhaps stubbornness is genetic—or your child is taking his cue from you.

Too true, says Trettel, who admits she's found herself sparring with Joseph over inconsequential things—like the precise time to take a shower. "I have a hard time not winning myself sometimes," she says. Maniacci agrees. "Emily's helped me acknowledge my own desire to control every little thing," she says.

Try to curb your pigheaded tendencies, not just in your dealings with your child, but also with other adults. For instance, talking through disputes with your husband in front of your child—"I want to go out to dinner, but you want to eat at home. Let's order in so we don't have to cook but can still stay here"—shows your child that adults have to sacrifice, too. And if your child follows your lead, it'll be worth it.

Treat a stubborn kid like any other kid

Despite all the best strategies, some days with a little mule can be pure endurance tests. If being understanding isn't working, don't hesitate to whip out the standard mom tools:

  • the illusion of choice ("I can't make you go to sleep, but you have to stay in bed")
  • the "do-it-your-way" approach ("You can use as much soap as you want as long as you wash")

Also be prepared to play the Mom card. A 3-year-old who throws a tantrum to get five more minutes at the playground, for instance, gets picked up and taken home.

Parents tend to want their kids to toe the line, fit in and be nice, but if you're constantly harping on your child about his stubborn streak, he'll start to think there's something wrong with him. That's why it's so important to accept your child for who he is. Don't try to beat this quality out of him, because it's just not going to work.

Luckily, stubborn kids' rigidity usually changes on its own over time. That glimmer of silver lining you're seeing now—the leadership, learning skills and confidence—will likely amplify as your child gets older.

I've seen proof of that in Alexis, who's now 16 and not the tyrant she used to be. She's more discriminating about what to fight for but still has enough gumption to stand up for herself. Recently, I overheard a couple of her friends pressuring her to dis a classmate. "I think she's really nice," Alexis told them flatly. End of discussion. Hearing her say that, without hesitation, without fear of being judged, was worth every exasperating standoff she and I have ever had.