Raising a Difficult Child

by Eileen Wacker on Feb 8, 5:05 AM

I strive to be a great parent. I have moments of glory and others of massive doubt and worry. I constantly revisit the question, “what is a good parent?” And for every happy, proud moment, there are a thousand small cuts that I have to endure. I die a small death every time my child gets cut from a team, left out of a birthday party, or receives a bad grade. And seriously, my kids are not always dying with me. It’s often me bleeding and worried while they are texting and making plans, leaving their potential at the door as they walk out.

I have four children aged eight to 14. My 14-year-old daughter is “the pleaser,” my 13-year-old son is a “swagger-in-training,” my ten-year-old son is a combination “swagger-in-training apprentice” and “hide-and-seek addict,” and my 8-year-old daughter is a “puppy-worshipping tomboy.”

As parents, we want our children to have happy, productive lives, and we see their potential more clearly than anyone. We want is for them to do their best at every moment so they do not miss out. How did we get so unrealistic? They are not a reflection of us but a reflection of themselves, and most of who they are is hard-wired in. This has resulted in over-parenting and the assumption that our easiest to raise will glide through life as a result of our excellent parenting.

Our most over-parented child is our second child, otherwise known as “swagger in training.” He goes to a school for gifted dyslexics wearing his Vans, jeans, a flatback cap, t-shirt, and inexpensive chain. We rarely have a positive parent conference, as he is disorganized (forgets everything), opinionated, and simply cannot keep still. If he weren’t my child, many of his stories would be hilarious—like when he called 911 last week just to see what would happen and then hung up and wouldn’t answer when the police called back, so of course they came to our home. We were on Kauai for several hours, so the phone call from the police (who assumed we had left our two oldest alone for the weekend) screamed “bad parent.” It all worked out, but I’m starting to get this face tic when I see certain numbers on my phone. Then two days later, we went to a school event and he met his very nice posse of friends, watched him give a very funny presentation, and heard praise for his athleticism. I felt a shock of pride watching his moment of triumph.

All of a sudden, I had this shiver of doubt. Could the hardest child to raise in fact be the one most prepared for life?

As a contrast, my first child is very easy. We call her “the pleaser.” She runs with me and is part of student government. Her parent conferences are always great as she has a positive, sunny attitude and never, ever misbehaves in class. She works hard, manages to pull mainly Bs, and actually practices her piano. Am I being a bad parent, loving her for always going along and never being defiant toward us or any adult? The shiver gets stronger.

Could the easiest child to raise end up being less successful because of the behavior I am reinforcing? I can’t get this question out of my mind …

I struggle every day to keep perspective. I have so many hopes and dreams for my children. Realistically, I know they will determine their own path, but I “mommy-lobby” endlessly for them to do certain things. So I’m the one who needs to change—the old me tried to correct every flaw and ensure they never missed an opportunity. The new me sees my difficult child as someone with strengths I need to notice and nurture and my daughter as someone who needs to learn to stand up and say no once in a while.

Our youngest daughter is eight and has been to just four birthday parties in four years. She is a tomboy and would not be caught dead in a dress or attend a tea party or anything remotely “fluffy.” The old me worried—why don’t the girls like her? The new me embraces her sunny disposition and sporty prowess and feels relieved she is strong enough to make her own path and select friends she shares interests with.

Our ten-year-old son’s favorite expression is “it’s not fair.” He is never left out and always gets his fair share. He does the bare minimum at school and still gets straight As. The old me worried that when it starts to get harder, he wouldn’t have the good study habits of his older sister. The new me admires his heart of a lion and how he’s always in the thick of everything.

As a parent, I have caught and corrected flaws at every turn. I nurtured the early reader, applauded the reluctant bike rider, and attended every athletic event. So the old me is still in there, but the new me is going to be a lot more visible. I just got a call from school—“swagger in training” was sent to the office for holding his breath in an attempt to get light-headed. I feel my facial tic crop back up. But I am rooting for the difficult child to be successful in life—and, somehow, am sure that he will.