Spirited, strong-willed, wild child, brat. These words were used to describe my first-born when she was little.
“Why won’t she sit still?” her uncle asked at a restaurant, looking around the table with raised eyebrows. Her same-aged cousin sat contentedly in the high-chair next to her while my 1-year-old had to be restrained so she didn’t propel herself onto the floor.
As soon as she could walk, she became aggressive, reaching out to thwack other toddlers within her reach.
“This did not come from my side of the family,” I told my husband daily.
To survive dreaded shopping excursions, it was necessary I research and purchase a shopping cart restraint system to hold her down. A simple seat-belt wouldn’t do for her. I remember a disapproving old curmudgeon passing us by at Target one day, shaking her head, making a “tsk-tsk” sound and exclaiming, “You’ve sure got your hands full!”
The child was disobedient, stubborn and challenged us daily. She went to bed late and woke before the sun. She was on-the-go all day long, running and climbing, asking and debating.
After several embarrassing scenes I would rather not remember, I gave up on taking her to story time at the library, figuring she could wait until preschool for a professional to teach her how to sit and listen.
My dream of motherhood was shattered. This was not what I had expected. I had thought I was a natural with children, and parenting would be a breeze.
After a particularly challenging weekend visit with that wonderful same-aged cousin, the cooperative and content one, I was feeling beaten down. I called my pediatrician. I started talking to other trusted, non-judgmental moms. I read the research. I wondered if it was time to give in to those who told me to discipline by hitting. I needed to know how long a time-out is too long for an 18-month-old. Someone had to tell me why was she so difficult.
What I learned is that willful kids are experiential learners. They are compelled to learn by trial and error, rather than by being told. They aren’t just being difficult. They feel powerless if forced to submit to another’s will. However, if allowed to choose, they can become more cooperative. My husband and I were forced to become firm leaders who provided structure, absolute consistency, clear expectations and calm in the face of defiance. We found out that children are born with a clear personality that we do not choose for them.
From the start, we realized we did not want to break her will or squash her spirit. We could for-see the challenges she presented as a child could be useful assets for an adult. We figured it was our job to gently mold and guide this wild child into a law-abiding, socially-appropriate, functional adult.
So we spent a lot of time talking about civil behavior and supervising time-outs. We took countless deep, calming breaths. We found activities to channel her adventurous spirit. Our limits were tested as we coached each other through the worst moments. Eventually, we found she had provided us with great training. Our next two children were born content and agreeable in nature, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
We have a few years to go before she is fully-grown but, so far, her innate, fully-exercised, free-will has its benefits. She is driven, completely self-motivated and passionate about her endeavors. Her adventurous (some would say risk-taking) ways have taken her far in athletics. She outruns male athletes and breaks records jumping high in the sky. She loves a healthy debate, which makes social studies her best class. Her curiosity leads her to seek out facts and compels her to get to the bottom of any issue. She doesn’t fold to peer pressure, isn’t easily swayed and we don’t worry about her ability to say “no.”
She has picked a circle of friends who are each unique and strong, not one a follower or a wall-flower. Her fierce loyalty has led her to stand up for those she cares about, including herself when necessary, time and time again. She goes to bat for what is right, even if that means confronting a bully, testifying in a court of law or addressing an injustice to the highest authority necessary.
The years spent wrangling with this strong-willed child, the one who who challenged us at every turn, were not spent in vain. Sometimes the most formidable characteristics can be blessings in the long run, providing glimpses of greatness of what might be.