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My first child was relatively easy to parent. Oh, sure, he threw the typical toddler tantrums, and years three and four gave us a run for our money. But his sweet disposition and natural desire to please made him quick to pick up the whole “obey your parents” thing. Seeing his behavior sufficiently modified, I assumed I must be pretty OK at this parenting gig.

And then came his brother.

My middle child was nothing like his predecessor. He was feisty and bold and oh, so very strong-willed. Rather than a desire to please, he seemed to have come equipped with a natural bent toward defiance. Whatever he knew we wanted, he automatically wanted the opposite. And boy, could he ever dig in his heels. I was no match for him in a battle of wills.

RELATED: This is What It’s Like to Parent a Strong-Willed Child

More like my oldest, myself, I was baffled by this natural contrariness. I was stumped. Nothing I had done with my first child was working, leaving me frustrated, discouraged, and dismayed. Making matters worse, I felt like people in my life were constantly judging my apparent lack of parenting–a heavy burden for a (somewhat) recovering approval addict.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying–I simply did not know what to do.

But I didn’t give up. Oh, no. I knew God had created him this way for a reason, so I dove into learning how to work with his personality rather than against it. I pored over books, researched strategies, and prayed daily for wisdom and insight.

And the results have been staggering. He and I have both come a long way in a short time. He has grown in self-control and obedience, and I’ve grown in understanding and connecting with him.

The particulars of what I’ve learned about parenting a strong-willed child are another story for another day, but in the process, I gained something far greater. Something far more extensive than simply a new parenting strategy. Something that has changed the way I parent all my children.

I learned how to dig deeper than surface-level behavior. I learned how to connect before I correct. I learned how to go beyond mere behavior modification to shepherding their hearts.

I didn’t learn that with my oldest because he was so malleable, so compliant, so eager to please.

It took my challenging child to get me to go beyond the behavior and get to the heart.

And I’m inexpressibly grateful for that.

Not just for how it helped me parent him (and his younger, equally strong-willed sister), but my easy oldest child, as well.

RELATED: Dear Strong-Willed Child, You Are Worth the Struggle

You see, I WAS that compliant child growing up. But my good behavior didn’t come from a good heart; it came from my desire to please. So, I should have known that the right behavior can sometimes mask a wrong heart. I should have known not to simply accept my oldest son’s compliance with a sigh of relief and a pat on the back. I should have known that even easy kids need their hearts shepherded.

But I didn’t. I didn’t recognize the importance of starting with the heart until my challenging child forced me to learn.

He may have challenged my authority, challenged my patience, and challenged my sanity. But he also challenged me to be a more thoughtful, intentional, and purposeful mother.

And for that, I will be forever thankful. Because I would not be the mom I am if not for him.

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Lisa Mullen

Lisa is a wife, mom of three, and blogger. She writes at themerrymomma.com, a blog devoted to helping moms be the peaceful, joyful, and intentional moms they want to be. When she’s not working or taking care of her family, she can usually be found cooking, enjoying their country oasis, and reading her heart out. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram.

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