I remember being at a play date eight years ago. My first born was a toddler, and I was pregnant with his sister. I’d already faced a few parenting struggles. The wind got knocked out of me when I failed epically at breastfeeding. I wondered what I was doing wrong when my baby still wasn’t sleeping through the night at a year old. And potty-training? Girlfriend, don’t even get me started.
But behavior? Discipline? I had that on lock. My child sat in the corner at this other mom’s house and read books. Stacked blocks. Quietly and calmly zoomed toys trains across the tracks. Never did he even consider climbing on or jumping off furniture or chucking a toy across the room.
Yet this is exactly how so many others kids behaved. And there I was with pursed lips, shaking my head in disapproval. I mean, how hard is it to discipline your child? Why would you allow him to catapult himself off the couch or tackle the little girl next to him who was innocently lining up her baby dolls?
What was wrong with these children? What was wrong with the moms of these children?
A few months after that play date, my daughter was born, and she was a lot like her older brother. Well behaved, relatively calm, and pretty easy to discipline. (I had also encountered quite a few feral girls over my parenting years, and yet again, I maintained my post on sanctimommy mountain, since my kids were so good.)
And then the good Lord decided to have a nice hearty belly laugh at my expense. I think He looked down on me, all smug and judgmental and shooting side-eye at these frazzled, exasperated moms I met at play dates and at the park, and decided right then and there to send me a third child.
Another boy. And this one would be my undoing.
By the time he could walk, I knew. When I tried to read him a book and he chucked it at my head, I knew. When I found him stacking one stool on top of another stool in order to gain access to the off-limits cookies on the counter, I knew.
I knew karma had swung around to bite me in the ass.
So here is my apology to the moms out there with what society thinks are “unruly children.” I know now what it’s like to have a child who cannot seem to control his limbs. Or his volume. I know how it feels to get a judgy look from Nancy at the grocery store because my kid is climbing out of the cart or pulling cans of beans off of the shelves.
Or what it’s like to always sit in the back of church so we can make a quick exit—even though by this age, my other two could sit and color or look at books for an hour straight. My youngest, however, walks up and down the pew. For the entire service. And has no comprehension of what it means to whisper.
He is the kid who goes backwards up the slide.
He is the kid who will cut other kids in line so he can get first dibs on the cupcakes. Or have an extra turn on the ride.
He is the kid who will break your grandma’s vase that’s been on your mantle for 20 years. (Please don’t invite us over if you have breakable things.)
I can recall sitting in the pediatrician’s office at his third-year checkup. He’d already climbed up and down, and up and down, and up and down off the examining table. He’d crumpled up the sanitary paper that covered the table and threw it across the room. And he was currently scheming how he could line up all the chairs to play an epic game of The Floor is Lava. The doctor could see my face. I was sweating. I was exhausted. And she smiled and said, “It’s okay. He’s a healthy, normal little boy.”
After having two kids who were mature for their age, good listeners, and acted like humans out in public, I explained how baffled I was by the things my third child did—without regard for consequences. Things his siblings would never have done, because they knew it was wrong to sneak behind the couch with a giant piece of cake at 6:30 a.m. But, as our pediatrician explained, my son’s brain was currently at a developmental stage where he realized (or remembered) consequences after committing the act. Just as studies have confirmed that teenagers’ brain development often leads them to make questionable decisions, such is the case for young children.
Things started making sense that day, although we still have our challenges. It helps to know that his brain is wired a bit differently than his siblings’ and that there’s nothing wrong with him. Or me.
Through being his mom, I’ve learned that he’s not a bad kid. He’s not unkind. If he winds up and smacks you with a light saber, he’s not trying to hurt you. That’s his way of saying “play with me.” If he cuts your kid in line, it’s not because he thinks your kid doesn’t deserve a cupcake. He just saw an opportunity and grabbed it. He’ll probably grab two and hand one to your kid anyway.
And another invaluable lesson that knocked me right off my parenting pedestal is learning that moms of wild kids are doing their best. I know that now. We do discipline them. We try so damn hard. But we also know what we have to work with. My son cannot physically still still for an hour in church. Hell, he can’t sit still for five minutes, which is why he gets out of his chair and walks around the table 10 times during dinner. I’ve learned to not expect the impossible from him. I’ve learned that a couple books and a sticker sheet will not keep him entertained. I’ve learned that for every time I have to say “no” to his siblings, I’ll have to say “no” to him five times more.
And I’ve warned everyone who crosses our path that if they ever give this child caffeine they are dead to me.
My third child changed everything about the way I parent. Now, when we make plans, we consider the environment—will there be room for him to run? To move? Be loud? If not, it probably won’t work out. And that’s okay. He has his whole life ahead of him to learn to be quiet and still. For now, he’ll spend his days building couch forts, jumping off stuff, and living life at full volume.
And also making Mommy go gray in the meantime.