Raising My Strong Willed Child

baseball portraits 117We don’t parent on our own. Or at least, we shouldn’t. If we try to muddle through on the basis of our own (lack of) expertise, we’re more likely to screw it all up.

So I was very grateful to sit down for a long, focused conversation with a woman I respect deeply. She is raising a child like Nicholas, only she’s much farther along in the process. I’m not sure how to process that conversation except to share what has changed in me since then.

If you’ve been reading for any length of time, you’re probably aware that I’ve focused more emotional energy on figuring out how to deal with Nicholas than all my other children put together–including the one with Down syndrome. A strong-willed child wants to test the limits, and that includes the limits on the limits. For example: if you draw the line in the sand, he’s obviously going to cross it. But he has no intention of abiding by the consequences, either. If the consequence is “go to your room,” you’re going to have to make him go. It’s exhausting. It never lets up.

And if you’re not careful, all of life becomes a battle. And battles don’t leave room for love–the warm fuzzy kind of love, I mean. The battles themselves are an expression of love, but not one that brings you closer together and facilitates enjoying each other’s presence.

I’ve always known I needed to keep calm when dealing with Nicholas. But he’s so good at identifying my buttons, and he goes right for them. (Name this tune: He never hit the brakes, and he was shifting gears.)

Insert note of irony: while I am drafting this blog post, everything I am writing about is playing out around me. Just keep that in mind.

What always made it even harder was the sense that Nicholas had no empathy, no willingness to think about anyone’s feelings or desires but his own. I have often feared that Nicholas is wandering through the world without much of a conscience to guide him. Consciences can be molded but not created, and I’ve spent a lot of energy fretting on that subject.

“Oh no, strong-willed kids usually have a huge desire to please,” my mentor-mother said. I wasn’t sure I bought that, but I went back to my memory with an open mind and I soon decided she was right.

I’m jumping into speculation here, so bear with me. I think part of the reason things often spiral out of control is because parental disapproval weighs so heavily on him. Once he’s on Mommy’s bad side, he feels he’s beyond redemption. So then he acts the part.

That reaction makes no sense to me, but it is what it is. Everyone’s soul smarts when they get in trouble, but different people react differently. What makes Nicholas decide in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound is the appropriate response to getting in trouble? I don’t think I’ll ever understand that, because I was…uh, I still am…a person who reacts to criticism with a desire to instantly remake myself in the image of whoever is scolding. That, or stay up for three nights tossing and turning and having ghost arguments with them to vindicate myself.

But it doesn’t matter, really. I don’t have to “get” why my son reacts that way, as long as I can see through to the hurt and sadness that lies beneath it. When I address the problem through that lens, everything works out much better.

In the meantime, his public persona gets comments like “easy-going,” “goes with the flow,” “so kind and thoughtful,” and “an absolute joy.” Nicholas, like Julianna, has an uncanny knack for creating a fan club for himself wherever he goes. At least among the adults. So I know he’s got the empathy, the ability to think of others. The conscience is there. It’s just that the way I’m trying to access it isn’t working.

So I’m trying to learn new patterns of behavior for myself. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but flexibility is a good thing–not just for the body, but for the mind and the soul, too. God grant me the grace to raise my son up into a holy man, despite my many failings.