Why Punishments Don’t Work with Your Strong-Willed Child and What to Do Instead

Want to know the biggest mistake you can make with a strong-willed kid? Engaging in a power struggle.

Strong-willed kids are the ones who:

  • Crave independence and a chance to do things their own way
  • Are determined and willing to try and try again
  • Need to be heard—they have opinions and they’re vocal about them
  • Are questioners—they don’t just comply; they want to know why they have to do something
  • Don’t bend to pressure but stand their ground

It’s interesting that these qualities are highly valued in adults. They’re all qualities we find in business, community, and political leaders. They’re what propel adults toward big dreams and amazing results: independence, determination, advocacy, rule-breaking.

But in a three-year-old who’s testing boundaries and learning right from wrong?? Yeah, that’s tough. A strong-willed toddler or preschooler will argue about which sippy cup to use. They’ll insist they can tie their own shoes and then scream in frustration when it doesn’t work out. They’ll refuse to clean up any of the toys they took out, because they just don’t see the need.

Get involved in a test of wills with a kid like this, and you’re looking for trouble! Engaging in a power struggle is:

  • Exhausting for you and your child
  • Doomed to fail, because you’ve got a kid that won’t back down
  • Damaging for your relationship, because you’re pitting yourself against your child

"Respect"

These qualities of a strong-willed child can be extra problematic for parents who’ve internalized society’s expectation that kids “respect” their parents, because so much of a strong-willed child’s behavior can feel like a challenge to our authority. It can feel like their defiance and disobedience is directed at us.

But what if instead of trying to control our kids—to see them as a ball of behaviors we have to manage—we try to guide them through cooperation? What if we helped them see that 1) we get them and 2) we’re on their side? How would that change things?

What if we decided not to take their behavior personally but instead helped them discover the outcomes of their choices, so they could decide for themselves the best course of action?

Is that possible with a toddler or preschooler who’s testing boundaries and learning right from wrong? Yes.

“When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from who each of your children is. Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way.”
― Shefali Tsabary, 
The Conscious Parent

Natural and Logical Consequences

Someone who feels the need to control their kids punishes them.

Someone who wants to guide their kids to discover the effects of their actions uses natural or logical consequences.

So, what would it look like to guide a child toward an understanding of how their behavior creates an outcome?

Let’s say you’re exiting your vehicle with your toddler, your arms full of groceries, and you ask your child to grab their cup from their carseat and bring it inside to be washed, but they don’t. Well, tomorrow when their favorite cup isn’t clean and ready to use, you can remind them that it’s still sitting in the car. That’s a natural consequences of their not bringing it in. Did you have to do anything to teach your child this lesson? No. Did you have to “punish” them in any way? No. Did you lift a finger to help them understand the outcome of their inaction? Again, no. That’s a natural consequence.

Then, there are other times when we have to intervene to help our child connect the dots between their actions and the outcome to create a logical consequence. Let’s say you have a preschooler who’s refusing to clean up a room full of toys. Here’s you might use logical consequences:

  • Step 1: Explain why you’re cleaning up. “We need to get ready to eat dinner and we’re done playing with these toys for today, so we need to put them back in their homes for the night. Could you please put the trains in this bin while I stack the books on the shelf?”
  • Step 2: Offer choice. “Looks like you might be too hungry to clean up before dinner. Would you like to work on putting the trains away now or after dinner?”
  • Step 3: Make it low stakes and provide encouragement. “You know what I was thinking? When we clean up, I’m going to tip the bin your trains live in on its side to see if you can drive the trains right into the station!” (Here, making clean-up a game reduces the likelihood it’ll turn into a battle.)
  • Step 4: Try incentivizing. “If you help me clean up really quickly, I think we’ll have time to read an extra book tonight. Can we get it done super fast?”
  • Step 5: Provide a logical consequence related to your child’s unwillingness to cooperate. “Oh no! You’re still not helping me with the trains, even though I’m cleaning up the books. That makes me think we brought out too many toys this afternoon and it’s just too big a job for you. Tomorrow, we’ll take out just one thing at a time so it’s not so big a job.” Or, “Boy, if I have to clean up all these toys by myself, I’m going to be so tired! It’s too bad, because I won’t have enough energy left to read five books tonight. We’ll only be able to read two. Are you sure you can’t help?”

The beauty of this strategy is that you’re helping your child see that if they don’t clean up, if they make you do all the heavy lifting, something will have to change. And the thing that’ll change (fewer toys tomorrow or fewer books tonight) is directly related to their decision not to clean up.

One More Example

The strategy of logical consequences doesn’t always click right away for parents, because it really requires us to think through how we can incentivize our child to comply with us. It’s the carrot (rather than the stick) approach, and finding just the right carrot to dangle can be tricky. But one parent from our coaching program figured it out brilliantly!

This mom to a three-year-old knew her son was not going to take a bath willingly. He was in a phase of hating baths, but she knew he was due for one, so she found a way to incentivize her son to take a bath, rather than forcing one on him.

She said, “If you take your bath and get all clean, then I’ll be able to put your new, clean Paw Patrol sheets on your bed.”

Implicit in that statement is this: If you don’t take your bath and clean your body, we can’t put clean sheets on your bed.

This mom could just as easily have threatened her son. “If you don’t get in the bath, you can’t watch Paw Patrol tomorrow!” But then:

  • A battle ensues
  • The consequence has nothing to do with the undesirable behavior
  • The punishment is delayed too far out into the future to be effective
  • And the child feels it’s him against mom

I loved this example of logical consequences because it perfectly illustrates how we can elicit the behavior we want while still empowering our child. We can give them choice and avoid a power struggle. We can guide them toward the outcome we want without giving them the impression we’re here to boss them around.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting
Save My Seat!

Want to know the biggest mistake you can make with a strong-willed kid? Engaging in a power struggle.

Strong-willed kids are the ones who:

  • Crave independence and a chance to do things their own way
  • Are determined and willing to try and try again
  • Need to be heard—they have opinions and they’re vocal about them
  • Are questioners—they don’t just comply; they want to know why they have to do something
  • Don’t bend to pressure but stand their ground

It’s interesting that these qualities are highly valued in adults. They’re all qualities we find in business, community, and political leaders. They’re what propel adults toward big dreams and amazing results: independence, determination, advocacy, rule-breaking.

But in a three-year-old who’s testing boundaries and learning right from wrong?? Yeah, that’s tough. A strong-willed toddler or preschooler will argue about which sippy cup to use. They’ll insist they can tie their own shoes and then scream in frustration when it doesn’t work out. They’ll refuse to clean up any of the toys they took out, because they just don’t see the need.

Get involved in a test of wills with a kid like this, and you’re looking for trouble! Engaging in a power struggle is:

  • Exhausting for you and your child
  • Doomed to fail, because you’ve got a kid that won’t back down
  • Damaging for your relationship, because you’re pitting yourself against your child

"Respect"

These qualities of a strong-willed child can be extra problematic for parents who’ve internalized society’s expectation that kids “respect” their parents, because so much of a strong-willed child’s behavior can feel like a challenge to our authority. It can feel like their defiance and disobedience is directed at us.

But what if instead of trying to control our kids—to see them as a ball of behaviors we have to manage—we try to guide them through cooperation? What if we helped them see that 1) we get them and 2) we’re on their side? How would that change things?

What if we decided not to take their behavior personally but instead helped them discover the outcomes of their choices, so they could decide for themselves the best course of action?

Is that possible with a toddler or preschooler who’s testing boundaries and learning right from wrong? Yes.

“When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from who each of your children is. Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way.”
― Shefali Tsabary, 
The Conscious Parent

Natural and Logical Consequences

Someone who feels the need to control their kids punishes them.

Someone who wants to guide their kids to discover the effects of their actions uses natural or logical consequences.

So, what would it look like to guide a child toward an understanding of how their behavior creates an outcome?

Let’s say you’re exiting your vehicle with your toddler, your arms full of groceries, and you ask your child to grab their cup from their carseat and bring it inside to be washed, but they don’t. Well, tomorrow when their favorite cup isn’t clean and ready to use, you can remind them that it’s still sitting in the car. That’s a natural consequences of their not bringing it in. Did you have to do anything to teach your child this lesson? No. Did you have to “punish” them in any way? No. Did you lift a finger to help them understand the outcome of their inaction? Again, no. That’s a natural consequence.

Then, there are other times when we have to intervene to help our child connect the dots between their actions and the outcome to create a logical consequence. Let’s say you have a preschooler who’s refusing to clean up a room full of toys. Here’s you might use logical consequences:

  • Step 1: Explain why you’re cleaning up. “We need to get ready to eat dinner and we’re done playing with these toys for today, so we need to put them back in their homes for the night. Could you please put the trains in this bin while I stack the books on the shelf?”
  • Step 2: Offer choice. “Looks like you might be too hungry to clean up before dinner. Would you like to work on putting the trains away now or after dinner?”
  • Step 3: Make it low stakes and provide encouragement. “You know what I was thinking? When we clean up, I’m going to tip the bin your trains live in on its side to see if you can drive the trains right into the station!” (Here, making clean-up a game reduces the likelihood it’ll turn into a battle.)
  • Step 4: Try incentivizing. “If you help me clean up really quickly, I think we’ll have time to read an extra book tonight. Can we get it done super fast?”
  • Step 5: Provide a logical consequence related to your child’s unwillingness to cooperate. “Oh no! You’re still not helping me with the trains, even though I’m cleaning up the books. That makes me think we brought out too many toys this afternoon and it’s just too big a job for you. Tomorrow, we’ll take out just one thing at a time so it’s not so big a job.” Or, “Boy, if I have to clean up all these toys by myself, I’m going to be so tired! It’s too bad, because I won’t have enough energy left to read five books tonight. We’ll only be able to read two. Are you sure you can’t help?”

The beauty of this strategy is that you’re helping your child see that if they don’t clean up, if they make you do all the heavy lifting, something will have to change. And the thing that’ll change (fewer toys tomorrow or fewer books tonight) is directly related to their decision not to clean up.

One More Example

The strategy of logical consequences doesn’t always click right away for parents, because it really requires us to think through how we can incentivize our child to comply with us. It’s the carrot (rather than the stick) approach, and finding just the right carrot to dangle can be tricky. But one parent from our coaching program figured it out brilliantly!

This mom to a three-year-old knew her son was not going to take a bath willingly. He was in a phase of hating baths, but she knew he was due for one, so she found a way to incentivize her son to take a bath, rather than forcing one on him.

She said, “If you take your bath and get all clean, then I’ll be able to put your new, clean Paw Patrol sheets on your bed.”

Implicit in that statement is this: If you don’t take your bath and clean your body, we can’t put clean sheets on your bed.

This mom could just as easily have threatened her son. “If you don’t get in the bath, you can’t watch Paw Patrol tomorrow!” But then:

  • A battle ensues
  • The consequence has nothing to do with the undesirable behavior
  • The punishment is delayed too far out into the future to be effective
  • And the child feels it’s him against mom

I loved this example of logical consequences because it perfectly illustrates how we can elicit the behavior we want while still empowering our child. We can give them choice and avoid a power struggle. We can guide them toward the outcome we want without giving them the impression we’re here to boss them around.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting

About the author

Evie Granville, M.Ed., is an author, parent coach, speaker, and podcaster. Her advice has been featured by Parents, MSN, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reader’s Digest, and other major media outlets. She is the co-author of Modern Manners for Moms & Dads: Practical Parenting Solutions for Sticky Social Situations and the co-creator of the Solar System Parenting Framework and Quiz.

Evie holds a master’s degree in education from George Mason University as well as a bachelor’s from Columbia University. Her advice stems from her professional experience, her research, as well as her “hands-on training” as a mother of two.

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