Discipline and Counterwill

Counterwill” is the name for the natural human resistance to being controlled, and this includes discipline in the form of punishment being imposing by someone else.

Although adults experience this phenomenon, we seem to be surprised when we encounter it in young people. Counterwill is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted dynamic in parent-child and teacher-student relationships.

This instinctive resistance can take many forms—refusal to do what is asked, resistance when told, disobedience or defiance, and lack of motivation. Counterwill can manifest itself in procrastination or in doing the opposite of what is expected. It can be expressed as passivity, negativity, or argumentativeness and is such a universal phenomenon at certain stages of development that it has given rise to the term “rebellious twos” and “rebellious teens.”

Consider the rebellious teenager. I believe most theories about the stresses and strains of adolescence overlook the main issue. Reasons for adversarial relationships have focused on physical changes, emerging sexuality, new social demands, struggles between being a child and becoming an adult, delayed development of the neocortex of the brain, and other such suggestions. It is true that teenagers, by virtue of their hormonal changes, are prone to be emotionally volatile, unpredictable, self-absorbed, and hypersensitive. However, upon a closer observation, we can conclude that a major factor in this period of life—which is difficult for both adolescents and teachers—has its foundation in power struggles.

Despite the myriad of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple: a defensive reaction to felt coercion. On a side note, the totally noncoercive (but not permissive) DisciplineWithout Stress Teaching Model totally bypasses any feeling of counterwill. The reason is that students never refer to or have compunction to defend their behavior because a level of development is referred to—not the student’s behavior directly.

Counterwill is normal in toddlers, preschoolers, and students of all ages—as well as in adults. This phenomenon explains the reason that some youth are preoccupied with taboos and why they sometimes do the opposite of what is expected. Adults misinterpret counterwill in a young person as a manifestation of being strong willed, as being manipulative, as trying to get one’s way, or as intentionally pushing the adult’s buttons. Trying to deal with this dynamic by using traditional coercive discipline techniques is a recipe for disaster because no one likes being pushed or disciplined by someone else—including young people.

The antidote to counterwill is to avoid prompting feelings of being coerced. The key is to focus on influence—rather than on obedience. The art of influence is to induce people to influence themselves. Teachers and parents who aim at influencing—rather than dominating—have more success, less stress, and greater joy in their relationships with young people.

The practice of telling kids to do something is often perceived as being coercive. The inference is that what they are doing is not good enough and that they need to change. The key to avoid prompting feelings of coercion and counterwill is to prompt students to reflect, thereby redirecting their attention and thinking. Here are three magic questions to memorize and have at tongue-tip for various situations when you believe counterwill is involved:

1. Would you be willing to try something different if it benefits you?
2. What would an extraordinary person do in this situation?
3. Are you angry with me or with the situation?

For the student who often acts irresponsibly, here is a set of four questions that reduces any feelings of counterwill and lead to more responsible behavior:

1. What do you want?
2. Is what you are doing getting what you want? (This question prompts reflection.
If what you are choosing to do is not getting you want, then what is your plan?
4. What is your procedure to implement the plan? (Without a procedure, the plan has little chance of being implemented.)

Successful adults understand that relationships are critical for motivating others. They avoid anything that prompts counterwill in the form of negativity or that aims at obedience. Instead they aim at having people discipline themselves by promoting responsibility and using collaboration.