If you have more than one child, it is almost certain you will have at least one child who really tests you. Children have a natural way of helping you to identify your weaknesses. While having the mirror of truth held up to you might not be the most comfortable thing, this is actually one of the beautiful things about parenting. I truly believe there is some character refinement that happens as you care for a child that just cannot happen any other way.
With the right mindset, those identified weaknesses can be turned into strengths helping you become a better, more fulfilled human being. If you believe this life is about improvement and becoming more like God, you can see how parenting allows you to have a range of experiences that will inevitably push you toward this goal.
At a party recently, I was talking with a mother of six girls. It was interesting to me to note during our conversation the similarities between two of our children who have really tested each of us. I myself am the mother of one daughter and six boys. Because of the different dynamics of our two families, I am sure that the environment in our homes varies quite a bit. So, it was striking to me that her little girl was challenging in such a similar way to one of my little boys.
Through this and other conversations I have been a part of over the years, I have decided that most families have at least one child who really tests them (especially if they have 3 or more kids). Every child is different, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since I may be further down the path than some, here are some specific lessons I have learned working with challenges in parenting,
My hope is that these experiences may help you in your parenting journey. I think there are underlying truths I have been able to discover through parenting that can be applied to other’s specific situations.
Developing a personal relationship with God is absolutely the best thing you can do in parenting. I truly believe that God loves you and wants you to be successful, especially in raising His children. He also knows you and your child better than anyone; better than any parenting expert out there. He knows exactly what you and your child need. If you are not sure how to help your child, ask God. He knows the answers. I know this is true. I also know He will give you answers to your parenting questions asked in sincerity.
My best parenting moves have come from inspiration after pleading with God for help as this first experience illustrates perfectly.
The Child Crushed by Discipline
When my second child was two years old, I was at my wits end. He daily went into hour long fits of screaming and crying. I was beside myself trying to handle this situation. It normally started with him doing something naughty or being disobedient and then being put in timeout or reprimanded. Even a slight correction would cause him to spiral into a fit that would go on and on.
I remember one day driving home from an activity only 5 minutes from our house. My son hated being in a car seat for any length of time and cried every time I put him in the car (Thanks to having been seat-belted for the entire 80 hour cross-country trip the year before. By the way, we did take weeks to do the trip and made lots of stops for days at a time, but it was still traumatic for this little guy. Anyway…). During that short trip home he managed to wiggle out of his carseat and open the door of our Toyota Tundra as I turned the corner on a busy road. Luckily, the force of the turn caused the door to close immediately, but I was in shock.
I pulled over the car and lost it. It terrified me so much. He could have fallen out of the truck! I went around to his door and scolded him. I was crying and yelling and my heart was racing. I am sure anyone who saw me thought I was a lunatic. It was several minutes before I settled down, seat-belted him, and again slowly finished the ride home. All the while, he was screaming and crying and flailing. I can’t remember exactly what happened when we got home, but I am sure I put him in timeout which likely increased his fit.
This event was seared into my memory because it was so extreme, but more typical, daily instances that ignited hour long fits were for things like telling him not to do things that almost all kids do like taking away toys or not listening. Things that have to be addressed in some way.
It was around this time that I was praying for an answer for how to help my little boy. I loved him and disciplined him out of love. I did not want him to grow up spoiled or defiant. I also wanted him to be safe and happy. I remember specifically telling God, “I don’t know how to raise this boy, but you do. Please tell me how.”
One day, the answer came. I had the distinct impression to show an outpouring of love to my son and to stop trying to discipline him at all. This was counter to my own ideas. I grew up in a family that was heavy on the discipline. You simply did not get away with doing things wrong or for disobeying. I was determined to parent in the same way. I thought that if you did not discipline children consistently they would be unruly.
But, since my ideas were obviously not working, and I felt that the idea came from inspiration, I tried it. Immediately we experienced a complete turn around in our family. The next time I was inclined to scold my son, I instead gave him a big hug. I asked him if he was having a hard time and I told him I loved him. He instantly lit up and snuggled me on the couch. We just sat there and snuggled and talked.
Although I loved the moment, I was a little concerned that my response would cause problems. I thought that it would be an issue that he got away with being bad and that maybe next time he wanted attention he would do something naughty to get it. But that was not the case. Over the next few days, as I employed this technique, in addition to the absence of any fits, my son became more obedient, more helpful, and sweeter than ever. The difference was startling.
It is now nine years later, and for this son, I still have not seen any bad results that have come from using love in place of negative consequences when possible.
This experience taught me several things. First of all, I learned that love and connection can have more influence over behavior than discipline. I learned that all children are unique and that their specific personalities make a one size fits all parenting plan inadequate. But most of all, I learned to trust in God for answers to my specific parenting questions. That has been the leading light through all my other parenting hurdles.
The Child Who Did Not Like to be Wrong
Fast forward a few years to another challenge posed by a different son. This son was afraid to try new things because he did not want to fail. This problem was especially apparent in school work. He is a brilliant kid, but he would not read because he was afraid of missing words. He also refused to do math because if he missed a single problem, he felt like a failure.
Try as we might to convince him that mistakes are natural, and even good, he would not try anything that he was not perfect at. As a six year old, this did not leave many activities on his plate.
It was especially important to me that he learn to read well. This son already knew basic phonics, and he could read simple words, but he needed to be able to read stories. I knew he would be good at it and that it would bring him a lot of enjoyment, but every time I tried to get him to read, the first word he struggled with would cause a dramatic scene. He would throw the book and yell that he hated reading and would never read again.
I knew that my son would be able to read, and that being able to read was worth the fight, but I needed help figuring out how to go about teaching him.
After prayerful consideration, I asked a friend if she had any suggestions. She had a brilliant idea that worked beautifully. She suggested that I have him read a collection of nursery rhymes because their repetitive and predictable nature would be easy for him to anticipate. I also wrote any word that he could possibly miss on a miniature whiteboard before having him read. Then I would tell him, “Find the word stick,” and have him erase it. I made sure to ask the words in an order that would be easy for him to get the right answers. Then, we would read the story. With all the challenging words fresh in his mind, he read like a pro and gained confidence at the same time.
He quickly made his way through the nursery rhymes and was reading beginner chapter books in no time.
I started finding other tricks to help my son tackle each challenge he needed to face, always working to build his confidence in himself. As we have been able to string together successes through the years it has become easier to convince him that he is capable of hard things.
I can remind him, “Remember when you didn’t think you could read, but now you are an expert? I know you can do this too.”
The Child Who Wanted to Quit
This same child was prone to quitting when he faced any diversity, likely for the same reasons. Our kids all play musical instruments and sports, which I think are both important to character development. However, this particular son had a hard time persevering in both these and other activities.
One summer, I decided that tackling this issue was my top priority. This son loved to play baseball. He loved everything about the game, especially the strategy involved in playing it. When he was not playing the sport formally, he would hold imaginary games in the backyard all by himself.
I wanted to spend time with this son doing what he loved best, so I asked him if I could play too. This started an imaginary baseball league between the two of us. Almost everyday we would spend a couple hours in the backyard playing 5 inning baseball with ghost runners and ghost fielders.
He looked forward to our next game as soon as one would end. I let him know how much I loved playing with him and that I would be super disappointed if he didn’t have time to play with me. He would grin from ear to ear when I begged him to play with me. We bonded that summer over baseball. Not just as mother and son, but as friends.
In the future, when it came time for me to convince him that he should not give up on something, I could tell him, “I love you. I am on your team,” and he would believe me, and listen to me, because he knew it was true. I was able to help him soften his resolve to quit over and over again because I had put the time into developing a relationship with him on his terms.
Another thing we tried was for him to have a personal treat bag in the top of the pantry filled with candies he picked out at the store. Whenever he felt like quitting, but pushed himself not to, he could reward himself with a treat. He took this seriously and loved being in charge of rewarding himself for persevering.
My son will likely struggle his entire life with the desire to quit when the going gets tough. Perhaps this is a struggle we all have. But I can see that the more he pushed past this urge and shows himself that he can, the easier it is for him to convince himself that pushing through is worth the effort.
Succeeding as a Parent
Just like my son’s successes have given him confidence, my parenting successes over the years have helped me develop confidence in my ability to be a good parent. I try to look past the inevitable parenting fails and solve problems in our family like I would a puzzle. The tools and answers are all there, they just need to be found and assembled.
As I help my kids push past their weaknesses, I find that I am able to conquer my own. The problems to be solved are not always what they look like on the surface. When I prayerfully search for the root of issues and how to solve them, I am able to find the answers I need to help all of us progress.
I don’t think parenting will ever be easy, but it is certainly worth it. The challenges presented by children give life flavor make living more meaningful.