Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child- Book Review

My latest reading has been Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child, by Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D.  This book clearly summarizes its main point on the cover: “Eliminating conflict by establishing clear, firm, and respectful boundaries.”  I feel this book is honest and clear in what it says it is going to do.  It is not the most complete parenting book I’ve read, but it is a good starting point for parents with children with difficult behaviors.  I am raising 2 children, both of which could be called “strong-willed.”  I use many of the strategies in this book, but if I only used what this book presented, my parenting skills would be incomplete.

Book Summary:setting limits book

  • Know your child’s temperament and understand that you need to match your parenting style to their temperament.
    • Temperament does not change, but behavior and compliance can change.
  • Children are little scientists.  Their behavior is a form of data collection.  Parents need to give clear data so children can learn.
    • He calls strong-willed children “aggressive researchers.”
  • He outlines other parenting styles and why they might not work (punitive, permissive, and mixed styles).
  • He proposes a “democratic” approach, meaning “providing opportunities for healthy testing and exploration but within clearly defined boundaries to guide children’s choices and learning (pg. 80).”
    • Explains it is an appropriate parenting style for all temperaments and should be a win-win for parents and children because it focuses on teaching and learning.
    • Focuses on taking action rather than talking.  Children learn through parent’s words followed by clear and consistent actions.
      • If you are consistent in your actions, your words will increase in effectiveness and parenting gets easier over time.
    • Explains how to set clear limits and follow through.  Children will learn to expect that you mean what you say and your limits are firm.
    • Be respectful to children using consequences that are logical, consistent, and in an appropriate amount.
    • Gives strategies to eliminate power struggles, stop children’s testing and manipulation of the rules, and avoid disruptive behavior.
  • He explains realistically what parents can expect when they start trying new parenting approaches, focusing on the idea that it takes time, and children will push back and test harder initially.  The book gives examples of what success may look like for different ages.
  • There is one chapter on skill building for children, but is fairly limited.

Positives:

  • Is positive about children’s personalities and doesn’t imply that being strong-willed is bad or that anything is wrong with a child.
  • Focuses on teaching parents to match their parenting strategy to their child’s needs, including building awareness of parent patterns to assess what needs to be changed.
  • Teaches parents to take appropriate action to get results (empowering).
  • Is realistic with parents about outcomes, what to expect and when (including that sometimes behaviors get worse before they get better when you start a new parenting strategy).

Neutral:

  • Moderately easy to read, but a bit redundant.  Concrete examples given, including examples of more difficult situations and how to handle them.
  • Based on well-established principles of behaviorism and reinforcement, which have been shown to change behavior.   However, the author doesn’t share any of the research or evidence to support his principles.
  • Uses the main term of a parenting style that is “democratic”, which is misleading and a meaningless label in my opinion.
  • The book claims it will teach children new skills, but in reality it is much more about teaching parents new parenting skills.  There is not nearly enough time spent on how to teach children skills.
  • The book claims it will help build positive relationships, which I only saw as a small side result to stopping negative and ineffective interactions with your child.

Negatives:

  • Not all children who are strong-willed are so because of temperament, as this book would imply.  Many children are strong-willed from developmental disabilities (ADD/ADHD, behavior disorders, cognitive delays) or due to histories of abuse or trauma.  This book applies very well to “typical” children with strong-willed personalities, but not as well to children with developmental disabilities.
  • Focuses on teaching parenting skills, but lacks insight into teaching parents how to teach children skills their child may be missing.  It fails to really analyze the underlying cause of behavior and implies that children purposefully ignore parents and try to misbehave, when in reality many children lack skills and need to be taught how to be successful.
  • The book left me with a feeling that it was teaching children to be submissive and parents to be controlling.  I don’t think this was the authors intention, but the tone was definitely there throughout the book.  I would like to have heard more about positive parenting techniques (praising, rewarding, positive attention, building self-esteem) and how to intrinsically motivate children to be good people (empathy, kindness).

Who would I use this approach with:

  • Most children without any developmental concerns, ages 3-14.
  • Children who are “strong-willed”, with mild to moderate behavior and attention difficulties.
  • Parents who feel ineffective, out of control, or too permissive in their parenting style.

Who would I not use this approach with:

  • Children under 3 (or developmentally under 3), and only in limited forms up until about age 5.  I would also limit my use of most of these strategies over the age of 15 years.
  • Children with special needs that parents struggle with are more related to a skill deficit, rather then just being strong-willed (autism spectrum disorder, some mental health conditions).
  • Children with a background of trauma or who are not well attached to their care-givers.  This approach doesn’t build a parent-child relationship, but instead relies on the parent-child relationship being firmly in place.

Would I recommend this book?  Both as a general parenting book and as a book for raising children with “strong-wills”- yes, this book is clear and has a sound message.  It is a good starting point, but it is not a complete parenting guide for difficult-to-raise children.  As a professional, I have found that most difficult children lack skills (for example attention, self-regulation, social or adaptive behavior skills).  I would encourage parents to take additional steps to identify what skills need to be taught in addition to learning to set limits.

Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.