Thoughts on a Strong-Willed Child

boy familyThis afternoon, Henry had his seven-year well-baby check-up. Seven years ago we had our fifth son and maybe I figured I had an idea, way back when, of what I was getting myself into.

Not so much.

Five boys in a row. From the same DNA. From the same momma and daddy and you might be inclined to think “been there done that” and is life really all that interesting with so much repetition?

But of course parents of children everywhere know that I’m being silly, and especially mothers of a few boys in a row are giggling right now at the idea that any two sons are exactly alike.

When our second son Elliott came along I remember thinking, “well this should be easy, I just did all of this 21 months ago…” and of course it was not like hitting a rewind button, not at all. Ethan and Elliott are about as different as two boys can be and I had to come up with a whole new set of How To’s to deal with Elliott’s own unique needs and preferences. Some of my methods worked for most of the kids, but the truth is there is never a One Size Fit All in parenting.

Of all the boys, Henry is the one I’ll peg as “strong-willed.” I’ve hesitated to come out and brand him (though you’ve no doubt picked up on this over the years) but lately I’ve been thinking how very special and yes, challenging it is to have a strong-willed child (and I’m thinking each one of us parents could easily say who we’d give that honor, if we were inclined to share…). And so I’m willing to just claim it. My name is Rachel. I have a Strong-Willed Son.

Now you can go two ways when describing your strong-willed child. You could go the route of Willful — which in some ways has a negative vibe. Willful disobedience, willful rebellion. Lots of terms that make willful sound like a very negative character trait indeed. And there is plenty of truth to that, that a strong-willed child can steamroll the scene if not properly managed.

But lately, for some reason, I’ve had this grace to look at Henry and really relish in the absolute joy and beauty of this kind of child (of which I have a few, but he’s The Mostest). And to recognize and acknowledge that with our children, we don’t manage or control, we train, which means we do our work in light of who God made each one of these children to be.

It is hard mothering a strong-willed child because he doesn’t necessarily want to go with the flow. This child will never utter the words “we can’t do that, we are not allowed…” and rules were definitely invented to be challenged, not blindly obeyed.

Now I can hear some people tsk’ing, maybe even shaking a head in solemn judgement. “I’ll tell you how a child gets like that,” you are inclined to think, “and we should all blame the parents.”

And the reason I’m willing to write about this now is because I have finally, FINALLY!, broken free from those lies. The lies the devil has been telling me, that somehow when our children make bad choices it is because of our own poor parenting. When a child can’t behave the way I want it’s because I haven’t concocted the magic obedience solution. I mean, can we do better? Always. We can work hard and communicate clear and have a plan in place for our expectations and consequences. But can we create robot-babies who robo-leap on command? Not really… not me and Paul anyway.

What we can do, we parents of a strong-willed child, is have a plan that involves patience, discipline, prayer and patience. We need to step back and assess the situation with this child — what is the problem, what can we realistically tackle — and then come up with a way to get the job done.

But we also, in the midst of this, need to embrace the nature of our child, this beautiful gift — and the nature of ourselves as parents. I found an interesting chart recently about the four parenting quadrants, how different personalities parent. And I realized that parents can only operate out of who they are. We can’t be someone we are not, we will never expect things from our children that are outside of who we are and the values we hold. Freedom of expression, free will, perfect behavior, perfect table manners — these are all options in parenting and each mother and father will have a list of things that they decide is worth their energy — whether this is a conscious decision or not. We all put effort into the things we value, that is where we are willing to expend our energy.

And so, in light of that, what we have to ask ourselves when dealing with a particularly spirited child, is whether we are doing everything we can to meet that child’s needs. And what I’ve realized lately, where true freedom has come for me, is that the answer to that question is: yes and no.

So often in parenting, laziness can creep in. Certain children just don’t require the same amounts of energy or demand the same level of attention. And then you wake up and realize you’ve gotten in the habit of saying one child’s name repeatedly until they are good and ready to obey. This is (in case you didn’t know it) lazy parenting. And it’s ugly. Ask me how I know.

The good news is with a plan and a little caffeine, you can turn these habits around. Your own bad habits and that of your child are not doomed to be here forever. (In this case, the key is to wait until you really need the child to do what you are asking and then [light-bulb!] follow through on making that happen.) What joy and freedom in proactive parenting!

But at the heart of all these thoughts and revelations is a message of love and a reminder not to compare. Don’t look at other children who seem to tow the line beautifully; ask God to show you the wonder and beauty of YOUR child. Don’t forget that God loved you so much that he sent this creature to your care, and because of that you will have what you need to get the job done. Enjoy your child, who he is, who God made him to be; not a vision of who you think he could possibly be if you work hard enough at it. Love your child and pray for wisdom and strength to bring out his best.

For the longest time I’ve referred to our strong-willed child as a bear cub, but lately my image is changing. He seems more like a William Wallace, barreling down at anything that stands in his path. And Paul and I are tasked with the incredible responsibility of helping our boy determine what is worth tackling and plowing down and when he should practice sensibility and manners. What a mission we have!

And yet, on those days when I wish my boy would go with the flow and sit there and be quiet and just do what I said already, God seems to give me the grace to see Henry through His eyes — through the eyes of The Creator. He has given us these strong-willed creatures because he needs strong people — strong men and women to be His hands and feet. God needs a man who will stand up for righteousness — who will speak from the heart and stand fearless and true. What a gift it will be to know that man!

And in the meantime, the challenge is to do right by this child. To embrace who God made him to be, but to train up in the way he should go. To teach him to use that strength (“He’s really more like a baby rhinoceros,” I told Dr. Newton today) in the way he should. And then rest in the knowledge that God loves this boy more than Paul and I ever could, and he wants every good thing for this creature who delights him so.


Adoption, On the Gist

It was really, really awesome to have my sister Joanna, her son Judah and our brother Dan on The Gist this season. We talked about adoption.

Latest Issue from the House of Tissue

costco fun

We hit Costco every Sunday after Mass. The boys are in love with the new iPad display.

I have been craving a return to writing in this space. I thought it would happen last week, when everyone went back to school. And then maybe earlier this week, after we had been on A Schedule for a full week. And here we are, at the end of the second week of school (so still technically a week and a half in because we started last Wednesday) and I finally said “enough waiting for the perfect moment. Just do it!”

Up first, a story that perfectly encapsulates where I’m at in life right now.

Today I was at lunch with two of my friends, happily enjoying some lunchtime friendly banter and I started to relay a story about a recent conversation I’d had. Just a casual, “this is what we were talking about…” and out of the blue, like I did not see it coming, tears. Floodgates. Ugly sobs and me apologizing because the look of my face was terrifying nearby babies.

Woah! That was fun.

The good news is both of those girls are about seven months pregnant, so unpredictable waterworks they get. “Oh that was so me last night,” comforted one friend. And the crying itself doesn’t freak me out. I’m inclined to cry, more when I’m happy than sad but still. It was the total lack of notion that such feelings were hanging out right there in my chest. Guttural sobs at the local Mexican dive. Who knew!

And that, my friends, is what my life is like right now. Happiness, joy, excitement, EXTREME TEARS. Elation, glee, fun times as a family UH OH HERE MOM GOES AGAIN. Sheesh. It’s really emotional around here.

I’d like to add, just as a reference point, that I’m also experiencing brow sweats which is a new and fun thing for me. So I’m hoping that more of my issues can be blamed on swinging hormones than on my oldest son being a senior in high school. But I think the fun thing for some women is that two coincide “nicely” (not) and I’m left mopping myself up off the puddle I turned into on the floor. Or in the basket of chips, as the case may be.

I’m emotional right now is what I’m saying.

But the happy news for you few blog readers still hanging on (hi mommy and daddy!) is I’ve come up with a schedule for writing. Because writing helps me a lot. Emotionally. Spiritually. Emotionally.

Back to having a senior: it’s my first and I’ve got several friends, whose kids are in Ethan’s class, and they are about to graduate their babies. And I’m talking the youngest of six and seven kids. Just like that, the youngest is a senior. So that puts things in perspective. This is our first time, we have many more to come. But I see these women and I remember when they were in my boat, when I was the mom with four little boys, none yet in school and these women were at the basketball games (my husband coaching their sons) and active in all the school activities. And just like that, they are finishing up and I’m getting started (by the way I’m crying now so I’m sure you’re feeling sad you aren’t sitting here to watch the drama).

My mother should have named me Anne of Green Gables. I’m already mourning the loss of all six of my babies being gone from the nest when the truth is they are all very much here. I love me some gut-wrenching I do.

So the lesson here is: ENJOY THE MOMENT RACHEL. Quit being sad even though it’s okay to be sad. Like, do your little crying and then get back to the joy of the moment, okay? Okay. I promise. I’ll try.

Into the Great Unknown

first day 14And here we are, at the place I’ve been thinking about for so long. Our oldest child is beginning his Senior year in high school, he is becoming the man we’ve all these years been training him to be. Not so much training him as guiding. Not telling him who to be as much as gently buffering him on his way.

I realized a few weeks ago that parenting teens feels a lot like building a ship. We tinker and toil and sometimes (between the ages of 12 and 14?) it involves a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We are involved in the assembly of this masterpiece that will one day set sail. We pray the ship is a sturdy vessel that can handle the waves, that is built to withstand the tides and force of the great ocean of life.

But perhaps more than a shipbuilder, the role of a parent is sculptor. We are given the gift of a child and our job is to simply help discover who God has already made that child to be. God has given each of our children gifts and talents, and our job is to help our children find their way. We guide them and teach them Truth and train them in the way of true joy — all the while watching with delight the discovery of who these wonderful people are.

The week before school started our son Ethan left with some of the high school staff and the other members of his Senior class for a retreat in the mountains. As we stood there in a circle and said a prayer for their safe travel, I knew what a big moment this was. Standing there on the edge of the great unknown, watching as the first of my little chickadees starts to think about leaving the nest. What will it be like to have him leave? How will we ever survive?

The thought brings a lump in my throat, I won’t lie. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t break a little piece of my heart to admit my son isn’t the tiny baby we brought home from the hospital all those years ago. He’s no longer the little boy who had to hold my hand to cross the street, he doesn’t need me to run next to him as he steadies his bike.

But he is of course. He is all of those things still. It’s just that those parts of who he is are now contained here, in my heart, where I will treasure all those seasons as mama to my oldest son. As I do with each of my children.

And now, we look forward. We rejoice in all these years of preparation, our years of guiding our boy and praying for him and we pray that Jesus will continue to do the good work he started in Ethan. It’s emotional being a parent, and exhausting. And also thrilling and wonderful. I’m scared about my children growing up, and I love watching who they’ve become.

But I know God’s grace is enough. And this is part of his plan. Even when it feels scary, even when the unknown feels like something I’d rather not experience, God’s love for me reminds me to trust in Him and be not afraid.

The joy of life with the Holy Spirit is peace. It’s grace. It’s the ability to look at life’s circumstances and know God is with us. Not in a white-knuckling survival-of-the-fittest kind of a way (though there are admittedly seasons when that is the case). But in a way that faces each new day with the confidence that God is with us. He is with us! He loves us! Do not be afraid, he loves you so much.