I Know My Kid Can Be A Jerk, But We Are Working On It

Why It’s So Hard To Discipline My ‘Difficult’ Child

Zabavna/Getty Images

Everything about our four-year-old, Aspen, is challenging. We often discuss how if she were our first, she’d have been our last. She’s this wild, curious little girl with a sweet smile and her own interest, and although I love the heck out of her, and she’s probably been the best fodder imaginable for my writing, because…well…she’s kind of a jerk.

And I know what you are thinking, aren’t “four-year-old” and “jerk” synonymous? Well, yeah, kind of. But like everything with Aspen, she takes that whole four-year-old jerk thing to a new level. For example, a few weeks ago she was sent to sit in the main office at preschool for refusing to do a class assignment. When Ms. Frank told Aspen that she needed to get to work, Aspen called her, and a few classmates, losers. This is preschool people, not even elementary school, and although she’s the youngest, she’s the first of our three children to be sent to the office. And I honestly don’t know where she picked up “loser” because we don’t use it around the house, but here we are.

Ultimately, this came at the end of a long list of qualms the school has had with our daughter’s classroom behavior. One evening I remember picking Aspen up from school and she announced, “I was on one today!” I asked her if that was a good thing. Aspen nodded. From behind, the teaching assistant mouthed “No.”

After meeting my daughter, most people use euphemisms like “spirited child” and “high energy” and “strong willed” when the reality is, she does what she wants when she wants, and regardless of punishments and redirection, she is, at her core, a unique independent agent interested in her own agenda. And trust me, we’ve laid down a number of punishments, everything from time out, to losing screens and treats, to going to bed early. But none of it — and I repeat none of it — phases her.

One evening I put her to bed early for not listening to her mother. She kept sneaking out of bed, so I ended up sitting outside her door. She asked me for yet another drink of water, and when I told her no, and reminded her that she was going to bed early for not being a good listener, she said, “Well, I want another drink of water, and you’re not listening to me. That makes you a bad listener, and you need to go to bed.”

I couldn’t see her, but her tone I’d heard a million times, and knew that she was cocking her head side to side while waving her index finger. I’d seen it a million times. And I suppose the really frustrating thing about all of it is that in the future, I want her to bust down glass ceilings. I want her to look her boss in the face and ask for a raise. I want her to be independent and strong, but somehow I’m going to have to live with her until then, and so is everyone else, so it feels like I’m walking this fine line between teaching her to be strong and independent, while also teaching her to not be a jerk.

All of it is overwhelming, and all I can think about is the fact that she’s only four, and we have a lot of years ahead of us.

One of the more frustrating elements of having a jerky child is that parents and educators often look at Mel and I like we are doing something wrong. And you know what? I don’t think we are. I think that we are addressing the issue as best we can, but Aspen is who she is. I can’t speak for all parents of jerk-like children, but I’d like to assume that most of them are actively working on the issue, so there’s no need for judgment.

Not that everyone is casting judgment though. For example, we met with my Aspen’s preschool teacher awhile back, and naturally, we were a little worried about it. We sat at this small table, with small chairs, across from Ms. Frank, a short and slender woman in her fifties with curly hair and a warm smile. We talked about Aspen’s development. We talked about her coloring and number recognition, and how all of it was good. There were a few pauses, and then I finally asked, “How’s her behavior?”

Ms. Frank took a breath, and as she thought, my wife, Mel, tried to fill the void, telling her that we know she can be a lot, and we’re sorry, and we struggle with it at home, and we are working on it. Ms. Frank put up her hands, smiled, and said, “Yes, she can be a lot sometimes.” She told us a few stories of redirecting Aspen. She laughed at almost all of them. Then she said something that really put things in perspective.

“I want that little girl to be who she is no matter what, because she is pretty wonderful, and I have no doubt she’s going to rule the world someday. Don’t ever squash out her spirit.”

It was quiet again after that. Mel and I smiled at each other. I can’t speak for Mel, but I can say confidently that I’d never felt more optimistic about my daughter.