Is Your Child Strong-Willed or Weak-Willed?

A few weeks ago I did a post on the Way of the Will as a little refresher course on how Charlotte Mason explained the will and how it works. Many of you responded with requests for more on that subject. So today we’re going to touch on another aspect of the will, and I will sprinkle in more over the coming weeks and months.

Today I want to talk about a mental shift that can occur if you change just one word when you think about your child’s will. Parents often refer to a child as strong-willed when that child refuses to do what he is told. But Charlotte Mason would beg to differ. She would propose that the child is not strong-willed, but weak-willed.

Think about it this way.

Let’s say you’ve started a new eating plan and have cut out sugar. Then you go out with some friends to celebrate someone’s birthday. You end up at a certain restaurant where everybody orders cheesecake: raspberry chocolate cheesecake and salted caramel cheesecake and fresh strawberry cheesecake and mango key lime cheesecake.

If you give in and eat cheesecake too—if you do what you want to do instead of what you know you should do—would you describe yourself as “I can’t help it, I have such a strong will”? No. You would say, “I’m weak. I need more willpower.”

Yet when a child chooses to do what he wants to do instead of what he knows is right, somehow we ascribe to him a strong will. Charlotte Mason would say that a child who chooses to do what he wants instead of what he should is weak-willed; his will is not strong enough to choose to do what is right even when it’s hard.

It’s an interesting way to look at the will, and it can be a helpful one.

Especially with young children, their emotions can feel overwhelming at times. You remember that Will is the gate-keeper to the heart and mind. He decides which ideas are allowed in to influence thinking and behavior and which ideas are rejected. 

When a child’s will is weak, his emotions can run havoc over Will. Picture Will standing at the gate. Two ideas are before him: one is to keep playing with toys; the other is to do what Mom said and go put on his shoes. While Will is standing there deciding, suddenly this mob of emotions comes rampaging out to the doorway, grabs the Play with Toys idea, and chanting “Play with Toys! Play with Toys!”, lifts it to their shoulders, and comes flooding back through the gate. Will just stands there watching them and feels like he can’t do a thing about it.

It’s never pleasant to feel out of control, like you’re being carried along with no choice in what is happening to you. At any age, really, it’s important to strengthen Will so he can make those tough choices even in the face of a mob of emotions. Eventually, he will be able to stop that mob in their tracks before they even get to the doorway to bully him.

How? Charlotte said that Will is strengthened just like any muscle in our bodies: by feeding it and exercising it. We feed it on living ideas of heroic models in stories and in real life. And we exercise it by giving it opportunities to make choices. As with any exercise program, start small and once that level is mastered, gradually build up. 

Especially with young children, it helps to present small choices that have immediate built-in consequences. For example, when my children were young, they didn’t like to eat peas. (Who would have guessed it, right?) So at meal times we would give each child as many peas as she was in age: a two-year-old received two peas on her plate, a four-year-old got four. The rule was If you want a second helping of anything or if you want dessert, you have to eat everything on the plate, including the peas. They had a choice. They could choose to not eat the peas and, therefore, not get seconds or dessert. 

It wasn’t a life-shattering decision (and don’t worry, we didn’t have peas every meal), but it was a tangible choice that had immediate consequences. That’s just one example. If you take a little time to reflect and brainstorm, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with many more opportunities for your child to practice making small decisions with immediate consequences—opportunities to exercise his will so it can grow stronger.

Keep in mind that this is not going to happen overnight, just as with strengthening a muscle. You don’t do one push-up and suddenly you have strong biceps. It’s going to be a gradual process. But it’s such an important one.

I wrote a blog post on a fascinating study that was done with preschool age children. It’s called Charlotte Mason and the Marshmallow Test. I encourage you to read that article.  

Basically, the young children were given a choice: they could have one marshmallow right now or they could choose to wait until later and receive two marshmallows. What is fascinating is that many years after that study, the researchers followed up on those children and discovered that the ones who had been able to wait for the two marshmallows—the children whose will was strong enough to choose to do what was hard—those children had experienced better success in life. They had better grades, better health, fewer addictions, better relationships, fewer divorces, and better jobs. 

If you think about it, that makes sense. So many decisions in life are difficult ones that require strong willpower: resisting addictive behaviors, instilling healthy habits, not saying or doing hurtful things in relationships, applying diligence in studies or in work. 

A person who is carried along, out of control by rampaging emotions, and doesn’t have the strength to make good decisions is going to struggle through life. He lacks the necessary willpower to succeed. 

But a person who is strong enough to make the right decisions, even when they are hard, is set up for success. As Charlotte put it,

“The man who can make himself do what he wills has the world before him, and it rests with parents to give their children this self-compelling power as a mere matter of habit.”

(School Education, p. 20)

Strong-willed or weak-willed? It’s a difference of just one word, but that one word can radically affect how we view our children and interact with them. 

I’ll talk more about how to strengthen the will in a future post, but I think there’s enough here for you to get started on. I hope you will.