I find myself having this recurring conversation with devoted parents of difficult children, so I thought I’d share it with you. First let me say that by “difficult” I mean kids who are more difficult to raise. In fact, more is the operative word here — more active, more inclined to explore (read: get into things), more emotional, more likely to question, more labour-intensive, more just about everything — apart from obeying, sleeping and playing by themselves.
Second. I’ve lived this. Let me give you one example: a weekend visit at our friends’ parents’ lakeside home with our “more” son (three at the time). Before I could get my shoes off, I was pulling Riley away from a low shelf laden with breakable knick-knacks. It quickly became a maelstrom of four adults trying and failing to stay one step ahead our intense little guy. The climax came when I pulled Riley away from a crystal sherry decanter, which was teetering like a bowling pin. Meanwhile, Dan, our friends’ almost three-year-old played quietly by himself.
Experiences like this make parents question everything they are doing. I’ve talked to many moms and dads of difficult kids and one thing they have in common is that they doubt and second-guess themselves.
As one parent put it recently, “I don’t want to waste my daughter’s young years consumed by worry, or by trying to find something ‘wrong’ that I can ‘fix.’ But it’s my duty to arm her with the skills she’ll need to succeed.” This mom deals with ongoing internal dilemmas: If she lets her four-year-old daughter go down the slide four more times when she’d said only two more times, will it undo all the progress she’s made? Does she have the wherewithal to handle the likely emotional meltdown if she sticks to her guns?
Here is what I say to parents like her: Let your daughter go down the slide two more times. Sometimes, compliance after extra chances is the only compliance these kids can muster. But, regardless of what I say, you’ll still second-guess yourself. People will say you’re too lax, but I’d bet your child already hears no, don’t and stop more than other kids.
You may well be doing some “wrong” things. With “more” kids, you do all sorts of things the discipline experts say you shouldn’t do — yell, nag, cave, make silly extreme threats you can’t possibly follow through on. Most of all, you’ll wonder if your hyper-vigilance, reminders, warnings and admonitions are accomplishing anything positive.
Well, you are doing some good — but it will be hard for you to see that. Anthony Wolf, a psychologist, author and columnist for The Globe and Mail, once told me: All those seemingly ignored and ineffectual efforts to teach and guide your kids go inside them and become part of who they are. At least they know you care about how they act.
So don’t give up. Along with their other attributes, “more” kids are usually pretty interesting and fun. So enjoy them when you can because you both need those positive experiences to help you stay connected. Our “more” child is now 26 — a very thoughtful and capable young man. Whatever role his mother and I might have played in that is largely due to the connection we maintained, one that sustained us through various challenges and helped us enjoy the many aspects of him that are sweet, amazing and funny.
There is no quick fix for “more” kids. Slow and steady wins — or more to the point, helps you finish — the race.