Do We Have the “Strong-Willed” Concept Entirely Wrong?

Nov 07, 2022

He threw the banana peel on the floor at Grandma’s house and quietly refused for over an hour to pick it up. There was a line in the parking lot, and I gave clear instructions not to step over it to keep him safe while buckling a sibling into a car seat. He looked directly at me and placed one foot over the line. He bawled for 20 minutes on the drive back home and stopped immediately once we pulled into the driveway and turned off the car. He said he hadn’t stolen the magazine from the store we’d just left but had found it earlier.

“He” in these scenarios represents more than one child – all who will remain anonymous but share my DNA. I’ve had a bit of experience with “strong-willed” kids.

Except I don’t think that was the issue at all. In fact, it was just the opposite.

“Strong-willed” is culturally characterized as a person determined to get their way. They will argue, fuss, cry, threaten, plead, scream, plod at a snail’s pace or race like a cheetah – in direct violation of whatever speed of movement you’ve requested, not “hear you,” and refuse to comply with the most basic request if it doesn’t interest them.

Language matters. If I say the muffins are “delicious,” you’re more likely to reach for one than if I say they’re “edible.” Is your colleague “persistent” or “stubborn?” Is your spouse “friendly” or “flirty?” Is your parent “concerned” or “nosy?”

Are cars “used” or “pre-owned?” Is a wheelchair occupant “handicapped,” “disabled,” or “mobility-challenged?” Is someone a “coward” or “conscientious objector?” Is your neighbor’s yard “natural” or “unkempt?”

A single word change can spin us around 180°. If I write “My grandson is strong-willed,” you’ll immediately draw conclusions quite differently than if you read, “My grandson is weak-willed.”

“Strong-will” is not only an entrenched phrase in our culture, it’s a powerful force in how we perceive and treat others.

What if “weak will” was a more accurate description of people who fight to get their way, whether at full height they stand eye-to-thigh or eye-to-eye? How might changing our language change our approach?

Whenever we associate “strong” with a problem, we invariably think the solution is to weaken, soften, or even break the difficult component. We don’t think “Oh, let’s make that even stronger!” If we say, “That’s a strong smell" as we pinch our nostrils shut, we don’t solve the problem by saying, “Let’s make it even stronger!” Yet if “weak” is identified as a culprit, we conclude “That needs strengthening." Anyone who likes strong coffee sips one that is weak and declares, “Let’s make this stronger.”

As a species, we were born with a frail will after the Fall. “What? You’ve clearly never met my kid, spouse, parent, sibling, coworker, boss, neighbor, ____.” You’re right. But I have read God’s account of us.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were given agency. Free will. The ability to choose. For this ability to be real, they had to be given a choice, and this came in the form of one tree versus all the others. The Bible is silent on describing the look or taste of the “No, no” tree but points out all the “Yes” trees were visually beautiful and appealing and produced delicious, scrumptious, yummy, savory fruit.

As long as these first two humans chose what was right, their will remained strong.

They could walk past the tree and say, “Nope. Nada. No thank you.”

Until the fateful day arrived. A new voice entered and appealed to an appetite, reframing it in a subtly vicious way. What was the alluring promise? “You’ll be like God!” Wait! Adam and Eve already were like God – they’d been made “in his image.” They shared divine characteristics – the ability to reason, create, have purpose, desire and engage in relationship with others. There was one way in which they weren’t like, God, however – they didn’t know the difference between good and evil. They only knew good.

When they exercised their will – the ability to choose – to go against God, their will – resolve – didn’t grow stronger; it weakened.

Their will became subject to a master – sin. They hadn’t been incarcerated in the Garden, forced to serve God. Their will had been created strong and free. They exchanged this for a feeble and shackled one when they gave their desires more say than their determination.

What is enslaved is never more robust than what enslaves it – until it becomes powerful enough to gain its freedom.

This isn’t a philosophical or theological ramble. Our understanding of the relation between the mind, will, and emotions profoundly impacts how we relate to ourselves and others – and especially how we bring up children.

The more difficult it is for a person to choose what is right, the weaker their will is, not the stronger.

How, then, does this impact parenting? We’ll look more in-depth at this next week. For a first step, replace the phrase “strong will” with a “weak will” and realize it is our goal as individuals and parents to cultivate strong wills. That is what allows us to walk on past the scheming, seductive solicitations of evil and say “No. Nada. Nope. No thank you.”


©Stephanie D. Smith, 2022


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