Don't Worry, Your Little Hellion Will Probably Turn Out Fine

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 
difficult children
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When I first met my husband’s cousin, Ike, I thought he might be the nicest guy I’d ever met. Breezy and good-natured, he was (and is) one of those people who just exudes genuine kindness. I watched him speak patiently to his tantrumming young daughter and noted how his slow, southern California cadence calmed her right down. I greatly enjoyed our whole day together.

“Wow,” I told my husband later. “Ike is really cool. Did you spend much time together growing up?”

“Ike is really cool,” said my husband. “But…well, he was a lot different when we were kids. Like, a lot different.”

Ike was, apparently, quite the hellion child. As my husband regaled me with stories of his cousin pestering and torturing practically every relative and described behavioral issues that befuddled Ike’s sweet parents, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I literally couldn’t picture this guy being that kid. It didn’t compute.

I’ve since seen it happen with other family members though. We have a nephew who bit my husband in the butt hard enough to leave a bruise at 4 years old, who peed on a kid on the playground at 6, and who called his sister an “asshole” while I was babysitting them at 8. He wasn’t a horrible kid all the time, but he definitely had some hellion tendencies.

Now he’s 17 and is one of the nicest, most level-headed, and mature teens I’ve ever met. He’s driven and successful (he plays a sport at the internationally elite level), but he’s kind and considerate as well. He’s the only reason I can reconcile the description of Ike as a child with the man who I know him as now.

I’ve spent some time trying to figure out how this happens. Presumably, many of the behavioral challenges these two gentlemen presented as children were due to good, old-fashioned stubbornness. Some kids have an indomitable will to defy the status quo, a resistance to being told how to live their lives. And while arguably ill-suited to parental control, those traits are strongly linked to success as adults.

In fact, a study that tracked 700 kids from ages 9 to 40 found that those who exhibited stubbornness and defiance as kids became the most financially successful adults. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t become jerks, of course, but I think conscientious, dedicated parenting tends to squelch that tendency. Both Ike and my nephew had loving, involved parents. Over time, their parenting helped mold these difficult children into awesome adults.

But it didn’t happen overnight. Along the way, they went through a lot of difficulty, dealing with behaviors and conflicts that would cause some parents to throw their hands in the air and declare, “I give up!” I frankly don’t know how they did it, but I know they were determined to raise compassionate adults who contributed positively to the world. They looked for the good in their children and didn’t let their challenges define them.

So if you have a hellion child of your own, don’t give up. They may give you grief now, but keep your eye on the prize. Remember that you are ultimately raising adults, not children. Looking forward to what they can become can help you see past whatever maddening characteristics they exhibit today. Chip away at unruly behavior, of course, but always with the remembrance that there’s a gem of a child underneath it all.

If Ike and my nephew have taught me anything, it’s that it’s a huge mistake to write off difficult children while they’re still forming who they will be. With time and a whole lot of decent parenting, those hellacious kids really can become the best adults.

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