I don’t think of myself as a black-and-white thinker.
I try to avoid categorizing people according to bipolar terms like “good” and “bad.” Some things are both a blessing and a curse. There isn’t always a right and a wrong; there isn’t always a victor and a loser.
However, somehow in parenting, I think I have led myself on with some black-and-white thinking.
I feed my children nutritious food (usually). I carefully create age-appropriate sleep routines (so I don’t go crazy with exhaustion). I try to institute a consistent discipline system (where the discipline isn’t just random yelling). I have read all the parenting books, and can theoretically apply love and logic and constructive feedback and…whatever all those other things are that you’re supposed to do.* Sometimes I don’t do an awesome job of these things and, under the effects of stress or frustration or fatigue, find myself hollering, “What the hell?? Where are your pants??” instead of calmly stating that the child will just have to go to school without them or whatever love and logicky thing I am supposed to do. But overall, I think I have kind of secretly thought that if I just parented right, or even just earnestly trying to do the right thing, my seemingly healthy kids would behave in at least a pretty average manner.
But I am just hitting a wall.
My four year old has been a roller coaster since maybe around his third birthday. I don’t remember him being like this before my youngest was born. He was a pretty easy baby, perhaps our easiest baby. In many ways, he’s easier at home now than when he was, say, three and a half (which I think is just a terrible age). But he does test me constantly, and he’s giving friends, family, and the folks at school a run for their money.
Oddly, he can be ridiculously charming, and often winds up with total strangers wrapped around his finger, giving him compliments and gifts. (See Changeable Charmer.) But next thing you know, bam, he’s become a rageaholic. He’ll seem like he is indifferent to everyone’s feelings–but he is incredibly sensitive, and sometimes I hear him wailing things like, “It’s all my fault!” or some kind of response that tells me he was listening to every word when he seemed to be tuning us out and now is internalizing the conflict. But when the switch has been flipped, it’s very hard to get him to flip it back. There are very few people who can talk him down these days, and I appear to be one of them, but it’s an incredibly exhausting process, and I can’t always be with him. And I am starting to feel this sense of dread at having to be in yet another conflict. It is tempting to just take the easy way out and do what he wants. And yet that would be a gross parenting fail. I do know that the momentarily easy thing is often not the best thing.
Today he was home from preschool. I was worried when I dropped him off, because it seemed like he woke up determined to make everyone else angry. He talked in a surly growl or whine, and argued with every blessed thing anyone said. He seemed stable enough when I left him, but I got the call I’d been fearing and halfway expecting; it came midway through the morning. He had been hitting and kicking his teachers (!!!) and hitting the door because he didn’t want to go play outside (???). I picked him up, and he was friendly and cheerful, though he became subdued when I said I felt sad that he had been hitting people.
And I’m just kind of at a loss. His teacher was nice but used words like “mainstream” when describing their challenges with him, and I feel frightened. And I can think of a thousand reasons why he might be acting this way: physical problems, the divorce, competing with his siblings/being the middle child, etc., etc., etc. But thinking of a thousand reasons doesn’t really help. Asking what I am doing wrong isn’t solving any of the problems we are encountering.
Black-and-white thinking is tempting because it creates a feeling of safety and security. If you just do everything right, things will turn out right. If you are good and do the right thing, then you can control the outcomes.
But you can’t control other human beings, including your children, beyond a certain point. And that certain point is fairly minimal. You can do your best to set them up for success, to protect them, to nurture them–but you can’t control their outcomes.
I wish I had something wise to say in closing, but this is just kind of a frustrated post, a tired post, a worried post. I know a lot of you out there have gone through similar challenges, and that is oddly encouraging. I will be looking to your support as we move forward.
*I’m really tired right now. I can’t even remember what all those books are.