My Strong-willed Child Comes Into His Own

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Nicholas parachute 1

Nicholas helping one of the “Black Daggers” paratroopers pack up his parachute at the local Memorial Day air show.

It’s a beautiful thing to see your child getting his bearings in his own life, getting his feet set solidly on firm ground, and begin to explore.

Nicholas has always been a child with a really strong desire to be close to his parents—close in a physical way. He always wants to be touching me, holding my hand, having my arm around him, kneading my arm with his hands.

It can be overwhelming sometimes, especially during those times when we were entrenched in pitched battles over strong-willed behavior. One of the first revelations I had in the long prayer and discernment over how best to parent this particular child was that the more “strong-willed” battles we had with him, the more he craved affirmation through cuddling, hand-holding, and so on. I knew there was a path forward in there somewhere, but it took a really long time to find it.

A year or two ago, we were at my in-laws’ house, and he woke up before everyone else. I had him snuggle up in bed with me to talk about what it was he needed. I had been thinking about the potential repercussions that excessive neediness could cause in adulthood for him, and I didn’t like what I saw. I knew I wasn’t on track to raise a holy, happy, healthy adult to do good things for God in the world. Emotional health is a really big part of that.

So we snuggled and talked about it. We talked about behaviors, and Christian’s and my frustrations as well as the things I saw in him that had the potential to be really amazing character traits, and I asked him to tell me what it was that most made him feel loved.

He had to think for a minute, and the answer he gave was not the one I expected. It was “time.”

We turned over a new page that morning, although it took a while to recognize that we were, indeed, on a new and better path.

Nicholas Parachute 2At eight years old, Nicholas is interested in many, many things, and his attitude is can-do. He’s been on a three-year rotation trying sports, and he loves them all. Now he’s trying to discern which one to stick with. He’s sounding out tunes on the piano. Some days, he comes home from school with some little note or gift or letter he made for someone he cares about.

He’s really interested in food and cooking, and also in all things Catholic. That latter may just be a side effect of this being his sacramental year—Reconciliation in November, First Communion in April—but I’m encouraging it as much as I can. Same with the cooking. He’s my standard kitchen helper these days. Sometimes I really would rather be left alone to cook in solitude, but generally I invite him in and put him to work. It’s fun to teach him. He’s really willing to try new foods, and he likes most things.

He likes to help me pick flowers from the nursery every spring, and he likes to take Michael outside and play baseball in the back yard. With Christian, he likes to go hit golf balls, or just go run errands.

Most of the time, in fact, he’s a thoroughly delightful child. Which is not to say we don’t have our moments, but there aren’t so many anymore. He still asks incessant questions and they can still be exhausting, but mostly we’re starting to have deeper, more thoughtful conversations about the things he hears about on the news and the choices we’ve made in structuring our family’s life.

And it’s so fun to watch him come into his own.

(Note: Nicholas approved this post for publication.  🙂 )

Seeking the Best (instead of expecting the worst)

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Mercy Monday smallI was on the hunt for little boy dress shoes when I discovered the tight bundle of clothes wadded up and shoved behind a storage bin in the boys’ closet. In that bundle I found a pair of khakis and a school uniform fleece that I had given to Nicholas less than twenty-four hours before with instructions to put them away.

This is not the first time we’ve faced dishonesty coupled with lack of compliance from this particular child. It’s not even the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

But it had been months since the last episode, and I had really hoped the lesson about honesty and obedience had finally sunk in.

Parenting Nicholas has stretched my creativity so far that it’s taken on a whole new shape. Trying to discipline using “natural consequences,” when there aren’t any natural consequences that matter to him one whit, frequently leaves me feeling completely helpless.

I do not react well to feeling helpless. I firmly believe that the greatest tantrums and rages we fly into are caused by feeling powerless.

But yesterday—call it grace, call it personal growth—I did not lose my temper. True, for a change I did have a consequence I could apply: he’d been promised a play date, and losing that mattered to him very much.

Nicholas blog 2But it’s also because I’ve spent a lot of time in the last several months making a concerted effort to seek out the best in this child. To open my heart to him, to love him better. But especially to look for the best in him instead of the worst.

To put it simply, yesterday was different because I was able to approach discipline with mercy.

Now, if you’d put those two words together a few months ago, I would have turned my nose up. I would have equated mercy with clemency–like a child is getting away with bad behavior. Like, I’m not disciplining them at all.

But that, like most of our thought processes about mercy, is far too small. The thing is, when a kid pushes your buttons time and time again (you’ve all got one of these, right?), your heart starts hardening toward them. If you’re not careful, you start expecting the worst from them—and worse, looking for it. And then, when it’s time to discipline, you’ve got all that baggage, and it’s impossible to discipline in love.

In the past months, because I’ve made a focused and ongoing effort to seek out positive interactions with Nicholas, I have laughed much more with him. Been able to take advantage of his eagerness to be useful. Had thoughtful conversations with him. Learned to recognize the sensitive soul beneath the demon named “strong-willed.” And (most importantly!) I’ve learned that he’s far and away the best kisser of all my children. 😉

Nicholas Good Friday 2

The upshot is that our relationship has become far less contentious, and when we did have an episode yesterday, I was better equipped to handle it.

And all because I have begun to seek out the best in him instead of expecting the worst.

To me, that is the essence of an attitude of mercy, and it is the attitude of mercy that underlies what Jesus lays out in today’s Gospel, the actions that became the corporal works of mercy.

There’s a clear parallel here to all our attitudes toward others, but for today I’ll leave it at the level of home and family. There are plenty of Mercy Mondays left to spin out the implications for the rest of life.

For other Mercy on a Monday posts, click here.

In Which I Begin To Understand God As A Parent

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Nicholas blogTen years of parenting have instilled in me a particular superstition. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has it. You never, ever talk about the baby sleeping through the night, because if you do they’ll stop. Am I right?

Likewise, you never, ever even breathe aloud that your strong-willed child has been really good lately, because the moment you do, some unknown cosmic force in the universe will exert an irresistible pull upon him, and it’s all downhill from there.

Which is exactly what happened last week, except I only got as far as admitting it in my head, and it was still enough to wreak havoc on my kid.

Wait. Did I say last week? It bridged the weekend and reached epic proportions on Monday.

These situations present quite a conundrum. Directing a strong will toward its best self requires a very firm hand, so I want to affirm him when he’s behaving appropriately, “lest they lose heart,” as Colossians says. But affirming his good behavior, by definition, brings that cosmic superstition into play.

Thus it was that yesterday morning Nicholas padded into my room after his alarm went off–ten minutes early. I was stretched out across my bed in the dark, wrestling with a difficult scene revision. I really didn’t want to give up those ten minutes, but I also knew this chubby little boy in the Darth Vader PJs was feeling insecure after a rough evening. I needed to minister to that emotion, and I needed to do it now, while the day was still newborn, with no mistakes in it (thank you, Anne Shirley).

So I put my laptop to sleep and drew him in for cuddles and kisses on sleep-warmed cheeks. And we talked about the last few days. We talked about things that were other people’s fault, but that he didn’t handle well. We talked about habits he has that push potential friends away, as well as driving his siblings crazy.

And in that moment, he seemed to understand.

The problem is, there seems to be a communication line between his reason and his feelings that gets blocked whenever a stressful situation arises. We’ve had these conversations over and over with him, and he continues to do the same thing the next time. I often despair of him ever learning, and chafe at having to repeat the same lesson again, and again, and again, and again. But what other option do I have? I can’t give up.

I see in my children the potential for good, and I take great joy in their triumphs and pride in their gifts. Yet I also see their weaknesses and flaws–weaknesses and flaws that I know all too well, because they are my pitfalls, too. I’ve been down the road, and I can see things my children can’t. They don’t understand what land mines they’re embedding in their life’s pathways–the relationships that will be damaged, the heartache they will suffer, if they don’t learn to handle those flaws first. I want so much to spare them the pain I went through for those same faults. Of course, I know the pain itself is the best teacher, but it’s so hard to watch them suffer when I know the solution!

It gives me an insight into God as a parent. The parallel isn’t perfect; God, by definition, has no flaws to pass on. But he does have the solutions to the struggles I face, and that is a comfort as I barrel through the seemingly impenetrable forest that is life.

Which is not to say that I’m going to handle things any better than I ever have. After all, God doesn’t come down in pajamas and cuddle me before the day begins, speaking audible words in my ear. The life of faith is now and will always be the same as it has always been: a constant seeking for greater enlightenment and a constant examination of conscience. And of course, a constant analysis of all the ways in which I failed.

And yet this tiny sliver of insight, which I’ve often heard but never really understood at a visceral level, opens a piece of my mind. And that can only be a good thing.

Parents, Kids, and the Other R-word: “Respect”

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Photo by pullip_junk, via Flickr

You know that thing about kids? That thing where they act like angelic beings, floating above a river of serenity and sweetness, any time they’re in public, and then as soon as the rest of the world turns its back, they grow horns and a forked tail?

Yeah, that. Six people watched my children while we were gone, and every one of them said the kids were cooperative, helpful, and conflicts were minor and resolved easily. And then we came home, and Nicholas did his Strong-Willed thing.

I haven’t talked about Nicholas in a while, because he’s getting older and I want to be more sensitive to the way people perceive him. Besides, things have been better. We’re hitting a stride. It’s not that we’re conflict-free, but he’s growing and we’re growing, and we haven’t had one of those epic battles of wills in quite a while.

At least, we hadn’t, until last week.

I will spare you the details that led up to this point; suffice it to say Nicholas had lost his screen privileges. I knew it was going to be excruciatingly difficult for him to resist the draw if his siblings were watching out in the open areas of the house. So, out of respect for him, for his innate dignity, to lessen his temptation and make it easier for him to comply, I set Julianna up with the portable DVD player in her bedroom, out of the way, out of sight.

A bit later, I came down the hall and found her bedroom door shut. When I opened it, I found Nicholas watching Tinker Bell with Julianna.

It was dinnertime before it finally clicked:

It was about respect.

Image by twicepix, via Flickr

I had acted in his best interest, out of respect for his innate dignity as a child of God, and his dishonesty was a slap in the face.

It hurt me.

I wasn’t angry. I was hurt. Because I try so damn hard: to give them a childhood full of great experiences, to balance that privilege with a sense of responsibility, and especially, to be fair both in my expectations and in disciplining them. It is freaking exhausting work, and it never stops, even when I go to bed at night.

Don’t get me wrong; this is my calling, and I feel honored to have been blessed by these little people who are capable of such goodness…when they want to be.

But when they throw all that effort back in my face, it hurts. A day after that interaction, I gave Nicholas a clear instruction: Take these cards downstairs and put them away. I mean put them in the Apples to Apples and Spot It boxes. I do not want see these on the floor.

Three hours later when I went downstairs to practice flute, I found the cards…lying on the floor. I kind of lost it. Sour-faced, Nicholas got up on the chair to put the cards…not in the box, but on top of the box. While looking at me to see what I was going to do.

(Incidentally, if you have ever wondered if you have a strong-willed child, ask yourself if your kid has ever done something like THAT. Because THAT is the hallmark, right there.)

Respect: to take the responsibility on myself to make sure I don’t set my kids up for failure by expecting them to read my mind and know what I mean without me bothering to say it clearly.

Lack of respect: to deliberately and repeatedly fling noncompliance in my face.

This kind of behavior is so foreign to me, I don’t even understand it. I’ve seen it in action before, in other people, but I find it completely unfathomable. Why would you choose to act this way?

This was quite the revelation. I remember as a child being admonished…frequently…that I owed my parents respect. As a teenager I had some nasty hurtful things to say on the subject, although most of it is safely buried in a Journal in the basement where it can do no damage. As a parent, though, respect has never hit my radar—until now.

But it’s on my radar now. I’m not going to demand blind respect. I want my kids to understand that everything I do is motivated by respect for their dignity as children of God—which is why I’ve made it a point to apologize whenever I fail to live up to that ideal. And that the respect I expect from them is due to me for the same reason.

I can only hope and pray that it makes a difference—later, if not sooner—and that if it’s later, I can cultivate the patience to wait for it.

Soul Searching My Way To A Better Relationship With My Strong-Willed Child

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Blog 1-NicholasIt was inevitable, I suppose, that my struggles with my strong-willed child were eventually going to reach the point where I had to do something. And since I’ve been a parent long enough to know that I have to take the lead on pretty much everything, I also knew the change was going to have to start with me.

Last spring I sat down with a friend and family member who has walked this path before me. She shared some of her stories and boiled down parenting a strong-willed child this way:

  1. Pick your battles.
  2. Battles chosen MUST be won.
  3. Do. Not. Get. Angry.
  4. They are far more sensitive than they appear based on their let-me-tap-dance-on-the-line-in-the-sand habits.
  5. They will not always choose rightly or wisely, but they must always experience the consequences.

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She gave me a book called Aaron’s Way: the journey of a strong-willed child. But the truth is, some of her stories intimidated me so thoroughly, I stuck the book on the shelf to await a time when I felt I had the emotional stamina to address it.

I uncovered it a couple of weeks ago, and I knew it was time.

Life with Nicholas had been pretty rough. He was doing things like hitting the kid who rides in our carpool. Kicking his brother’s seat–repeatedly, for the entire trip home, as the escalating reactions from his brother and his mother demonstrated his power and control.

Those after school hours are the worst. He crashes, as if he’s spent the whole day being good–and he’s very good at school–and now he has to let the demon ride. And it’s a hell of a demon, let me tell you.

I didn’t even like him. How do you think kind of admission makes a mother feel?

I read Kendra Smiley’s book and realized, first, that my child is not nearly as strong-willed as hers. And secondly, that although I can see that a well-formed strong-willed child will become a adult who can safely navigate a world full of pitfalls, I cannot consider myself “blessed with a strong willed child.” I just can’t.

I was kind of hoping for a step-by-step plan, and I was disappointed to find that was not the purpose of the book. In the end, it boiled down to those same lessons imparted by my friend and family member last spring:

  1. Pick your battles.
  2. Battles chosen MUST be won.
  3. Do. Not. Get. Angry.
  4. They are far more sensitive than they appear.
  5. They will not always choose wisely, but they must always experience the consequences.

What the book did, however, was tell stories from different families that illustrated the success and failure of adhering to or failing to adhere to these principles.

A few weeks ago, I told the boys to clean the bathrooms before the family literacy night at school. Nicholas really wanted to go. But he was not going to do that cleaning. Organic consequence: if you don’t do your work, you will not go to the literacy night.

The situation escalated predictably, and two hours later, with dinner on the table, he still hadn’t lifted a finger. In fact, he had spent the entire two hours lying on the living room floor repeating that he wasn’t going to clean a bathroom.

Two. Hours. He gave up two hours of his life to avoid a job that would take twenty minutes. If that doesn’t illustrate the mindset of a strong willed child, nothing will.

I was simmering, folks. But I was trying really hard not to boil over.

N closeupI told him it was dinner time, so he’d stay home and clean with Daddy instead of going to the literacy night.

When he realized I was serious, that child flew up the stairs and cleaned the bathroom. Did a pretty decent job of it, too. He chose to forgo dinner instead of the literacy night.

Well, he did the cleaning, so we let him go.

A few nights later I read a story in Smiley’s book that paralleled this one almost exactly. “Mistakenly, I thought I won the battle,” the mother wrote. “And then I realized that my three-year-old won, because she did exactly what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it and not when I asked her to do it. I actually lost the battle.”

How illuminating.

I feel guilty if I require Nicholas to experience the pain of the natural consequences of his choices.

No wonder he’s so good at pushing my buttons.

In the past two weeks, I shut down all my buttons. The angry buttons, and the guilty buttons. And you know what? He realized on the spot that something had changed, and his behavior shifted on the spot, too. He’s not compliant by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s also not straining at the line in the sand as long or as hard as he was.

I’m not delusional enough to think my struggles with my strong-willed child are over. But I don’t feel helpless anymore. I don’t feel like a leaky rowboat trying to ride out a hurricane. And I’ve actually been able to enjoy most of the time I’ve spent with him…which is a good thing for both of us.

There is hope. Thank God.