Our first kid was born full term and came straight home from the hospital. We had trouble nursing at first because it turns out breastfeeding is not at all intuitive despite it being “natural,” but we powered through. Jackson was smiley and giggly and sweet, though not a cuddler. He is seven now and is a very typical kid, with emotions and impulses that sometimes get the best of him. Parenting him is not without incident, but is fairly textbook — as in, his behavior can be found in a textbook.
In every experiment it’s good to have a control subject to compare to others. I don’t condone comparisons when it comes to achievements, but in terms of general issues it’s helpful to have some background knowledge. In parenting, it’s good to have a typical, predictable kid before you have a wildcard to reassure you that it’s not you. You are bringing up both kids in the same safe household with the same parenting style and caring village of supporters, the same food and routines. But, when compared to the control, the other kid is not at all textbook. His behavior cannot be explained by his environment, and has not been widely observed and documented for parenting manuals.
Archie was born at thirty-six weeks and arrived scowling. He had no interest in latching and was force fed formula by a nurse which he immediately spit up until eventually he was taken to the NICU for an IV drip to get him some nutrients. After a few months at home, my husband coined the phrase “baby rage” to describe Archie’s disposition. He didn’t have colic, and though he farted like a foghorn, he didn’t have any physical issues, he was just mad. Even though he didn’t have any diagnosable impediments, it was generally agreed by our pediatrician and a physical therapist that he was experiencing a lag in development because he was technically a preemie. He was slow to lift his head, slow to sit, slow to crawl, and didn’t walk until he was nineteen months old.
Archie’s irritability was attributed to his delays — he is cranky because he can’t crawl, he is pissed because he can’t communicate, and once he meets X milestone, things will get better. We agreed to a couple sessions with the physical therapist to see if she could get him interested in walking, maybe help develop his muscles so when he was ready he would be strong. She was patient and knowledgeable and came prepared with activities to get him engaged, but he refused. A child only a little older than one was straight up scowling and shaking his head at anything this woman tried. She started looking to me, like, “can you make him cooperate?” which made me laugh out loud. “You think he is different with me? Hell no. This is just his personality. He doesn’t do shit for anybody.”
At this point, I had a hunch that he wasn’t walking because he didn’t want to. We were pushing it and trying to encourage him to do a thing, so he would not do the thing. I cancelled the therapist sessions and let him do his own thing, and after a few more months he walked on his own. He didn’t walk to us to celebrate, he stood up and walked to see if he could, then sat back down when we came to watch.
Archie is full of “no.” He will argue that it isn’t Tuesday on a Tuesday, that it’s cold when it’s hot, or that a slice of bread is spicy and he can’t eat it. I’m not an expert parent, I’m just a lady with a bunch of kids, so I tried reading parenting books to see how to get through to my kid. The books for a strong-willed child made everyone miserable; they claimed I needed to be the alpha and never give in, and also recommended spanking which was a nonstarter for me. It was exhausting and completely ineffective. The more modern advice about explaining your decisions to your child so they understand why you are setting boundaries? HA. All the LOLs. Archie wouldn’t let me get the words out before switching gears to say “NO” to something else, and then circling back to say “NO” to the original guidance again.
Have you tried never yelling? Yes. Not yelling is my default setting, it just doesn’t get much use because unless I am a rage-monster, he claims I never spoke at all. Have you tried rewards for good behavior? Yes, but he couldn’t care less. The control subject is raking in the reward marbles that can be traded for weekend screen time, and Archie is screaming that he doesn’t want any marbles because they are stupid. He will declare that if the price of screen time is throwing his dirty laundry downstairs on laundry day, he will abstain.
We get so much advice from books and well-meaning friends and family, but if you think I haven’t tried it already you are mistaken. In the books, it’s “when he does this, you do this..” and then presumably after some time the behavior will change, at least a bit. I require a follow-up chapter for when nothing changes except my hair falling out and my throat getting scratchy from yelling. With the marbles, Jackson now understands that if he has a tantrum and won’t do a chore or participate in Kung Fu class, he won’t have enough marbles to play games on the weekend. If he runs out, he asks me for a chore he can do to get a marble. We were assured by a friend that the marbles would be effective since they worked so well for her own kid, so I had high hopes. But when I asked my friend what to do when my kid said he didn’t care about marbles and never wanted to watch TV again anyway, she just stared at me. Like, what do you mean he won’t cooperate? This totally worked for my kid!
Your kid is not my kid, and because I have other kids, I know it’s not just about my failings as a parent, though there are many. Archie is just a different sort of kid. When his daycare was trying to potty train him, his lovely teacher suggested I bring a bunch of clothes to school and she would take off his diaper. She said once he wet himself he would realize it was uncomfortable and be more receptive to learning to use the potty instead. After three days of garbage bags full of soiled laundry, his teacher pulled me aside. “He will sit in his own soiled mess and lie to my face about being wet. He refuses to admit to being uncomfortable and has to be physically removed to the changing table rather than saying he needs to be changed. I have been teaching a long time and I’ve never seen this kind of thing before.” Luckily, his rage isn’t usually physical unless his brother antagonizes him on purpose, so it’s not like he needs to be removed from society, he is just stubborn AF. But there is no workable guidance for the kid who isn’t tethered to our current reality and claims Tuesday is Friday and it’s time for breakfast, not dinner. To this day, if you suggest he go potty because he is grabbing himself and squirming around, he will scream and refuse until he is so uncomfortable he feels sick and splashes pee on the floor on the way to the toilet.
In between the rage and the “no,” Archie is loving and affectionate and even likes a good cuddle more than our first son ever did. Jackson is physically very independent and has never been a lap-sitter, but is emotionally delicate and has noticeable anxiety. Archie will climb on us when he feels like it, but will never share his feelings or even admit he has a physical issue like an earache until I confront him about the blood on his pillow and drag him to the doctor. That particular experience was so alarming I now look in his ears whenever he’s nearby to check for blood since I know he would rather go deaf than admit he needs care.
He can be silly, thoughtful, creative, and is even a math whiz for his age. He scores really well in his PreK assessments and occasionally answers math questions from his brother’s second grade class, but I’m not getting my hopes up. Any attempt to push him or give him different assignments would spectacularly backfire. When his teacher calls on him he always knows the answer, but if he doesn’t feel like responding, he won’t. And he adores his teacher. It has nothing to do with her teaching style, it’s just Archie being Archie. Sometimes it’s little things, like crossing out the ‘er’ in Archer on his school activities because he insists he is always and forever Archie (except when he wears just undies, socks on his hands and feet, and a sock hat — then he likes to be called “Sock-chie”), but then sometimes he loses a tooth and we have to pray he didn’t just yank it out in a fit of rage. We know he would never tell us he had a loose tooth, but if it hadn’t bled when it fell out he probably would have just thrown the tooth away and hoped we wouldn’t bring up the gaping hole in his mouth. It was a long two weeks before we saw that adult tooth coming in and could exhale knowing he didn’t just rip out his own tooth from the root for spite.
But Kat, kids like this grow up to be CEOs! Okay maybe, but also maybe some sort of unflinching dictator? As he gets older his personality develops more layers and it’s not all rage all the time, but it is concerning to have a kid who doesn’t respond to any tone, any words, any negotiations or even threats. I worry about this kid becoming a teenager and finally accepting my karmic fate for being a bratty teen myself. The one tiny bit of parenting wisdom that might apply to Archie is the The 5 Love Languages of Children suggestion that his love language might be acts of service, so when I push him to do things for himself, he reacts negatively. Unlike Jackson who is independent, Archie wants to be helped with his chores and helped to get dressed, which is unfortunate for his mother who has three children and has to constantly do her own chores. But, already I’ve found that “let me help you go potty” gets a better reaction than “you need to go potty,” though it’s not effective all the time.
The next time you are out in public (LOL at “in public” during a pandemic but you know what I mean) and see a kid yelling or acting out, instead of blaming the parents for what appears to be a bad upbringing, maybe try giving the Hunger Games salute to a mom or dad with a kid who doesn’t fit the No Drama Discipline mold. I have other kids who have textbook outbursts with textbook resolutions and they were raised the same way. Kids are all different, even with the same gene pool and the same home environment. If you are the parent of a unique or “strong-willed” child, you should know it’s not about you. Your kid needs to learn how he wants to engage, and then hopefully you can figure out his love language and communicate more effectively. You may not find much help in books and forums, but maybe by the time they’re choosing their own path between cutthroat CEO and dictator nicknamed The Throat Cutter, there will be some sort of breakthrough. Surely you don’t think Elon Musk was a pushover as a kid. He was planning pleasure cruises to space! Just last year he named his kid a bunch of symbols I can’t even find on my keyboard. No compromise there.
Please stay tuned for my potential upcoming parenting book, All Drama and Ineffective Discipline: Just Try Not to Raise the Next Joseph Stalin.
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