Parenting a Tough Kid

Parenting a Tough Kid

We were told we wouldn’t conceive again without IVF, so when a blood test showed I was pregnant, I was mystified… and thrilled. I spent hours talking to the sesame seed in my abdomen, repeating over and over, “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”

After a miscarriage scare at seven weeks, I doubled down on my mantras and my fastidious pregnancy behaviors—water aerobics three times a week, even in the misery of a Nebraska winter—and eagerly awaited the arrival of the son I internally nicknamed the golden child.

His birth was both routine and miraculous. When the doctor draped his naked little body across my chest, he peed all over me. I didn’t mind a bit; I was so deeply in love.

At three weeks old, he developed colic. He was angry, sad, loud and miserable.

Nearly five years later, not much has changed.

Let me explain. He’s a great kid. Smart. Opinionated. Wildly creative. Strong willed. Passionate. These are characteristics that will serve him well for the rest of his life. When he’s happy, it’s as if a ray of sun is beaming directly upon all those in his orbit. His smile stops people in their tracks.

And then there are his moods. We have euphemisms for his behavior. He feels his feelings strongly. He’s a walking exclamation point. This kid knows what he wants.

We explain it away. We’re not great disciplinarians. He’s four. He’s a tantrummy kid.

We find workarounds. We bribe him with lollipops for good behavior in public. We promise screen time in exchange for basic civility. We take turns staying home from social events because taking him, sometimes, just feels too hard.

We regularly admit to each other that we feel outgunned as parents. We ask for advice, we read articles, we talk to his teachers; we throw the pasta at the wall and see what sticks. Let him tantrum until he wears himself out. Don’t give in. Respond with humor. Reason with him. Treat him like a rational person. Acknowledge that he’s not a rational person and put him in time out. Incentivize him. Punish him. Love him unconditionally. Love him, but establish conditions.

I’m not asking for your advice, by the way. I’m doing my best. We all are (including big brother who is still wondering why we brought this noisy, grumpy person into our family). Over Christmas break, he was extremely sick, which brought out his absolute worst behavior, but also some of his best. Most days, he wanted nothing more than endless snuggles and tenderness. He let me baby him. When he wasn’t raging at the pain in his ear, he was a soft little rabbit, affectionate and appreciative. I had the time to fall in love with him again.

Loving him is exhausting sometimes. Check that: most of the time. It can feel lonely. Tell people about your difficult child and they have a million ideas for you, but not always empathy. We can feel judged, scrutinized in public and even by relatives. I know him better than anyone else on earth and even I can’t figure him out. So, thoughtful stranger in the check-out line, you’re unlikely to crack his code in this five-minute interaction. And that’s okay, it’s not your job.

It is my job though—to help him become the person he wants to be. To help him feel those big feelings and navigate a world that cannot always accommodate his wishes. I know that. I’m trying. It’s hard.

I love him, I love him, I love him.

From Canada, in February: A Valentine

From Canada, in February: A Valentine

Mothering in the North, or How America is Letting Parents Down

Mothering in the North, or How America is Letting Parents Down