Angry little voices broke the veil between reality and whatever vague dream my sleepy mind wandered in. I yelled one of those pointless things we say as parents when we our plans don’t include dealing with petty and ridiculous now or ever. “Everyone just work it out!”
I scanned the closest electronic device for the time: 6:30am. For real, children? As the arguing escalated, I went into the hall to find all three children awake with books creatively stacked across my daughter’s floor. My brows went up, which is quite a feat for that hour: “How long have you guys been up?”
My answer-ready daughter filled me in: Her 6 year old brother had come into her room at some point in the night to “sleep”, which apparently translates more closely to “stay up and play”. Alarmed by the prospect of handling severely sleep deprived children, I pressed further. “Exactly how long have you been playing?” She mused that it might have been starting to get light out when he came in.
(Can anyone say espresso please?)
Thus began one of those mornings when I knew exactly which kid would meltdown. Sure enough, despite a relatively normal morning routine, my middle son was a puddle before 8am. And by the time the bus rolled through, he decided he’d rather hide than ride. My eight year old willingly stepped onto the bus but my son? He threw off his backpack, kicked off his shoes, and retreated under a blanket on the living room couch. So I mustered my politest smile (the last one of the hour) and sent the driver down the road with just one kid, my mind whirling about how to get my son out the door (for the love) for what was likely a regular day for most kids.
After delivering an ultimatum that should earn me an honorary lawyer’s degree, I convinced him to go to school and we dropped him off miraculously by 9am. But even though it wasn’t easy, with him it could easily have been a lot worse.
So here’s my thing: am I intentionally raising one of my kids to throw tantrums and hit me when he’s mad? Have I spent hours teaching one kid to obey authority while letting the others run amok with no direction? Mm…gonna have to say no.
I have three kids- one who willingly complies and responds well to discipline, one that schmoozed two boxes of Twinkies from a stranger at the store today (not really the point, but still…), and one who is chronically difficult for me to direct. Discipline and positive motivators alike…they’ve all failed at one point or another.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s an amazing kid: he’s sensitive, thinks of others, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to build rockets or bridges when he grows up. But he also has bursts of anger that his almost 7 year old self should have kicked to the curb at age 4. He gets very stuck in a thought pattern and has a hard time unlocking. Sometimes he’s trying to be difficult, other times you can tell he feels like he’s the victim and he’s lashing out in his own misdirected attempt to right the wrongs he feels. (And trust me, his episodes aren’t pretty.)
Often I feel like I’m doing something terribly wrong with him. If I’d just been more consistent…if I’d just set clearer boundaries when he was a three month old. If only I were more structured and less irritable. And all of that has left me with guilt that is about as helpful as a hole in my window screen.
We could all be better parents (understatement of the century) but I’m realizing that’s not the only issue.
When it comes to our kids, there are some areas that we expect differences in. We assume not all children will be equally athletic or artistic. We understand that some will be amazing dancers and others will trip over their feet fifty times a day. Some can belt and carry a tune at age three and some, well…bless their heart.
While we wouldn’t look down on all children for lacking the coordination to dribble a ball down the court, we sometimes set more uniform standards for what kids should be doing behaviorally. We think ALL kids should be able to sit, focus, respond well to discipline. ALL kids should be able to access words to tell us what’s wrong and deal with it rather than take it out in unhealthy ways. And because we think ALL kids should be able to comply with our standard behavioral expectations, we either think something is wrong with the kid or with the parents and their discipline.
We say things like, “If that were MY kid…” or “If they just told him no more often…” We label kids in negative ways. We act like there’s an obvious, uniform answer for all our kids. But what if there’s not?
Honestly, in the past I’ve been more judgmental about other people’s parenting or their kids. I probably still am occasionally. But I’m beginning to realize what I wish I’d known long ago- just like all kids aren’t artistic or athletic equals- not all kids are behavioral equals either.
It’s not that we shouldn’t have healthy limits and goals for our children whatever their DNA and personality. It’s just that we can’t plug in some easy formula for each of them and expect to get the same neat and tidy results.
Some kids wrestle with anxiety through no fault of their own or their parents. Some kids throw hour long tantrums over something that other kids would get over in two minutes. Some kids are naturally compliant and some aren’t. Some, like mine, have anger bursts that surprise and undo me despite repeated attempts to curb and improve his behavior.
My point is simply this: each kid is so wildly different, and parenting is an all-out exhausting endeavor where you can’t use the same owner’s manual for more than one kid. In my experience, the owner’s manual is pretty incomplete to begin with.
Certainly we as parents play a huge part in raising up responsible, well-adjusted kids. But I also know this: each one of my kids processes and responds to direction, discipline, and motivators in irritatingly unique ways.
From missing buses to outbursts on one hand, to high-flung drama and irrational tears for another; from the sheer crazy of a three year old who crashes into everything, to an eight year old that I sometimes have to tell to please put down her book while her friend is over.
They’re all so very different. And we as parents are too. Parenting is part figuring out who my kids are and part figuring out who I am and uncovering how to meet constructively in the middle. With discipline. With goals. And hopefully always with love.
I’m a mess. My kids are a mess. We’re not perfect and both my parenting and their behavior could be a lot better a lot of the time. But we’re a work in progress and I imagine you are too.
If you have felt judged or incompetent as a parent because your kid didn’t seem to fit neatly into the behavior or discipline “norm”, please share your story! How have you learned to let go of people’s expectations? How have you learned to help your child or yourself overcome some difficulties (like anger, anxiety, OCD, etc) that other kids don’t deal with as frequently?
Let’s encourage each other with our stories.