The day that I realized my child is that child was a turning point for me as a mother. It’s the day I started to feel ashamed of my daughter and the way she behaves. The day I started to wonder if there was something wrong with her—or with me, as the one who gave birth to her and is responsible for making her into a decent human being.
It happened on a day like any other. We were having a playdate at our house with friends whom we know well and have invited over countless times before. My 5-year-old and her 4-year-old friend were running laps around the couch, playing tag. My daughter was “it,” and when she couldn’t catch up to her friend, she collapsed on the ground, pouting, close to tears, and shouted, “I can’t catch you! You have to slow down! You have to! I won’t play anymore if you don’t!” And I looked at her with a sigh, as I always do at times like these, and I looked at her friend, who is almost always smiley and agreeable, and that’s when I knew. I knew that a hypothesis that had been building in my head and heart for months and months now was unequivocally true: My child is not easy to like.
And it wasn’t because of that one event. It was because that wasn’t an isolated event at all. Things like that happen all the time. All the bloody time. Whether she is alone, with her siblings, or with her friends, at home or in public, my daughter is the bossy one. The demanding one. The one making a scene at the store as she cries on and on and on because I won’t let her buy a gymnastics leotard (we don’t even do gymnastics!). She is quick to cry, yell, and throw the kind of tantrum that I once thought only 2-year-olds were capable of. She’s disrespectful and rude. Moody. Unable to share and overly concerned about every damn toy (hers or someone else’s). Insistent upon doing things her way. Impossible if things don’t go her way. Manipulative. Always thinking only of herself. And always prepared to tell you exactly what she thinks and feels in that very moment. If she doesn’t like you or what you’re doing, you will hear about it. I hate labels, but let’s face it, she is spirited, strong-willed, and as it turns out, a brat. And every time we interact with someone outside of our home, I feel as though we are stepping into a minefield. I never know how it’s going to go or what will set her off.
This is especially problematic for a mother who is a not-so-closeted people-pleaser. I try hard not to let people walk all over me, but I pride myself on being kind and generous and thoughtful and giving. I want to make people happy and be easy to get along with. And I hate that my child doesn’t. People said it would get better as she left toddlerhood behind, but no—not for me, not with her.
She just screams louder and uses bigger words now. But in one way or another, she has been a difficult child all of her life, and I don’t foresee her changing any time soon. When I watch her side-by-side with her peers, it’s never more clear to me that my independent, determined, stubborn diva is different from all the rest. She is the the definition of a difficult child. And I want to accept her and love her for it. I don’t want to compare her to every other child. But the truth is that I wish she was a little more like your boy or girl, who is all kinds of sweet and pleasant and extraordinary.
So for those of you who encounter my darling, big-eyed brat, you will be forgiven if you don’t like her. I often don’t like her myself. I am her mother, and I love her because I have enjoyed her at her best. I recognize her potential. I know her strengths. I see how hard she tries to make her baby brother laugh, and the gentleness with which she pets our small dog, and the way she can confidently walk into a room full of strangers and own that room while every other child stays glued to their parents’ sides. I hear when she whispers, “I love you, Ellie,” late at night to her little sister, and when she turns to the stranger in the Starbucks line and politely introduces herself, and when she says, “Will you be my friend?” to a new playmate, something I wish I had the guts to do on a regular basis. And I am on the receiving end of an abundance of hugs, kisses, I love you’s, handmade necklaces, and drawings of me looking like beautiful Rapunzel. I know just how wonderful this child can be.
But you? You maybe spend a minute, or an hour, or a morning with her. If you’re lucky, you too will be on the receiving end of all her charm and warmth and outpouring of love. But if not? You will spend your time fielding her biting remarks, playing referee to her demands for the toy your child is currently playing with, plugging your ears to block out her crying, and wishing you were somewhere else. I’m sorry. I’m trying. Really, I am.
And I have to believe she is too, because, on a really good day, I will see her almost literally bite her own tongue to keep from saying something she knows that I don’t want her to, which gives me great confidence—or at the very least, moderate hope—that one day, she will become a person of supreme character and integrity, exactly as I’m working so hard to raise her to be. Perhaps, somewhere over the rainbow, there is a day when the thought of a playdate won’t put dread into my heart.
But in the meantime, don’t be afraid to tell your kids to stand up to her. To fight for the toy they want. To win the game that she is desperate to win herself. I’ll deny this if ever asked, but it’s even OK with me if they give her a bit of a kick to her shin. For real. Go ahead…let them birth their own inner brats. My daughter needs friends (and dear god, I fear she won’t have any if she keeps acting this way), but she also needs someone to knock her down a peg or two. My “guidance” (aka my gentle reminders, reprimands, criticism, and/or begging, depending on the day) has failed. Maybe, in this case, peer pressure will do her a world of good.
A mom can hope, at least.
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