Sweet and Sour, Black and White

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.

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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.

Comments

  1. Jenn:

    I completely feel your frustrations! I too am exhausted an awful lot – we have 3 children, ages 3, nearly 2 and 4 months! I like to be in control, and to a certain extend need to have some control otherwise I go mad! But I agree, we cannot make them behave in the way we want them too, especially when they are learning cause and effect, consequences, and how to deal with the world they are presented with. If we had all our resources – plenty of time, plenty of sleep, well fed, no financial or other stresses than are compounded with a family, I think we could deal with it better. But I don’t believe we are ever in that position, which is truly rubbish! I am learning at the moment to not take these things as a failure in being a mum, but that it’s part and parcel of the process. You are doing the best that you can, and that IS good enough :-) xxx

    Reply

    • Laura:

      Thanks! It’s true, that my “best” self always deals with things better–but I am so rarely that rested and relaxed self.

      Reply

  2. Karena:

    I can also relate to your frustration. My oldest (an almost 5-year-old girl) is a challenge! She is very head strong and opinionated and wants to be in control just as much as her momma wants to be in control! I think the Love and Logic method is great but I have a hard time implementing it. I don’t want to scream at my kids but sometimes I think that’s the only way to get them to listen. My oldest seems indifferent to other’s feeling but can be quite sensitive herself. She wants to be first, no matter what, which can result in her being too rough with her much smaller (yet very tough) younger sister. I’m often at a loss for how to effectively parent my oldest daughter especially since my other daughter is a breeze to parent. I wonder if she’s ever going to grow up and how well she’s going to make friends when she insists on things being done her way, all the time. She was a very easy baby but started becoming difficult around age 2. All I can say is, hang in there! You’re not alone!

    Reply

    • Laura:

      Ugh, sibling rivalry is awful!

      Reply

  3. ninarose:

    Hi Laura! I think Jude and Asher are just a few months apart and 4 has not been the break that I hoped it would be. He’s still agressive most days, and wants everything his way, control, etc. It’s been an incredibly humbling experience parenting my boy and I too have learned that we can’t control other people- just ourselves! I’ve been getting lots of practice at that. 😉 Just wanted to say, you are not alone! Asher is going through a lot right now. And even still, he’s going to be ok.

    Reply

    • Laura:

      Thanks, Nina! It is true that you can do your best to be a good influence, but you cannot actually control people. The last 5 years or so have been full of lessons about that! Sigh. Hang in there.

      Reply

  4. Cara:

    Such a relief to read this. I’ve got a 3.5 year old who’s testing me sorely (my husband gets home after work and tells me off for snapping at her, although he hasn’t been hit by her ALL FREAKING DAY), and an 8 year old who’s going through some emotional stuff – getting mad easily, being sad a lot, getting a bit of grief at school for his long hair, but not wanting to do anything about it, and it’s blooming hard work. I don’t have anything useful to say, except you’re not alone. Parenting doesn’t seem to get any easier!

    Reply

    • Laura:

      Not being alone is useful.

      Reply

  5. Ellen:

    Wow do I feel your pain. I spent many challenging years trying to figure out how to help my children with what I and others thought of as behavior problems. Most of the time I felt guilty and inadequate. Also dreaded the phone calls from teachers and other parents. Worried my children would be social pariahs and kicked out of school. In hind site, I would say that most of the time it was my problem. My fears both for them and about them made me crazy. My mother was always fond of saying things like, “this too will pass,” and “your children will not go to kindergarten in diapers.” I thought she was nuts and minimized the problems, because I was convinced that I was falling , otherwise my children would not have those challenges. Wrong! Every child has challenges! I can’t say that loudly enough. Also, my mother was right, “this too shall pass.”

    Reply

  6. Kris:

    Yes, I’ve been there, too. The hard part is worrying if it’s a normal thing that will pass, or if there is Something Wrong. My now 8 year old drew blood on his preschool teacher. :( I think most of the time it will pass and in hindsight, I wish I had worried less and tried to figure out how to love him more. Have you heard of the Love Language books? There’s one for kids that I’m reading right now, trying hard to fill my 3 kids’ love tanks. It does seem to help with behavior issues. Hang in there. I’ve heard a major brain growth happens around 5 years old. :)

    Reply

  7. Cassie H:

    That is the honest truth. We can only love them and give them the tools for success. We do not control them; they are not robots!

    Reply

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