Do you know what my favorite part of parenthood is? It’s when we get tricked. Like, the minute your kid is potty-trained and you think you’ll get a butt-wiping break, you pop out another baby. Or when you finally get them to eat a vegetable and feel all puffed up with pride, only to find all the peas and carrots crushed up under their highchair. And how about—and this one’s my all-time fave—when you’re blessed with a well-behaved child (in our case, we got lucky twice) and then the baby gods send you a strong-willed, spirited one who breaks you.
Because that’s what happened to me. As a mom of two, I was so cocky and all “I got this. My kids are normal humanoids who don’t smear poop on the walls or chuck their shoes at me in Target. I’m such a good mom. I can totally handle another.” And then karma sent me a poop-smearing, shoe-chucking banshee and I aged 10 years by the time he turned three.
But the thing about these strong-willed kids is that they aren’t “bad.” They are usually kind, caring, amazing little people. My son loves his family and friends. He wants to do well in school and at home and be thought of as a “good kid.” But only if he gets his way. And only if he’s the boss. So you can imagine how that goes down on the daily.
Maybe you’ve got a kid like this yourself, so you know this world already. But in case you don’t, here’s what parenting a strong-willed child means.
1. Parenting a strong-willed child means hearing relatives like your great-aunt Sally say that you “need to discipline that child.”
And wanting to say in return, “Oh really, Aunt Sally? THANK YOU FOR THIS PEARL OF WISDOM THAT I HAD NEVER THOUGHT OF BEFORE. Do you not think I’ve tried? Do you not think that every day is so goddamn full of ‘discipline’ that somedays I want to crawl in a hole where parenting (and judgmental comments like yours) do not exist? Of course I discipline them. Daily. Sometimes hourly. Hey, here’s an idea—how about you take them for the weekend and LMK how it goes for you, mkay?”
2. It means trying to cope on your worst days by telling yourself over and over that “they’re going to do great things in life!” because strong-willed people are often the most successful.
And praying that you make it through, so that you can witness them flourish.
3. It means searching for any reason to praise them because you’re so damn desperate for some positivity in your day.
It means throwing an effing parade for the smallest achievement, like eating breakfast. Or putting on their shoes the first time you ask. Or really any minor task that they should automatically just do (and that your other kids have always done) without fanfare, but for this kid, it warrants an Olympic medal and a marching band.
4. It means letting them win on shit they shouldn’t win.
Like, fine, you can have fruit snacks at 8:30 in the morning. Even though their siblings never in a million years had fruit snacks at 8:30 in the morning. And even though they asked at 7, 7:30, and 8 a.m., and you said no, so if anything, they really should be facing a consequence and not a reward, but you’re already so exhausted (or just left over exhausted from yesterday and the five years before) so you have no fight left. And, honestly, you just need them to leave you the hell alone for five minutes because you still have 12 long hours to go.
5. It means taking a deep breath…
and having an “it’s going to be okay” and “we’ll get through it” talk with yourself each day after school as you open their folder to see the teacher’s behavioral report.
6. It means smiling through gritted teeth.
Like when they make a scene at the end of the birthday party because they don’t want to leave, or at church because they can zip THEIR OWN COAT, or at the grocery store because they wanted to put the bread the cart. It means looking around you and seeing judgmental stares from strangers and wanting to shout at them, “I’m trying my best!” Or not looking around at all because you can’t take any more criticism today before bursting into tears.
7. It means being late to everything.
EV-ER-Y-THING. No matter how much “extra” time you give yourself. There will always be an unexpected battle you didn’t account for—over whether they need a coat, want to do their own buckle, put on their own shoes, want you to put on their shoes, which snack they can have, which cup they can have that snack in, or who gets to open the car door. And it also means showing up frazzled, sweaty, and already too tired to function, though you’ve only just arrived.
8. It means preparing for the worst.
Like letting them go to the potty and “handle” the whole event on their own because “they can do it!” And then standing on the other side of the door bracing yourself for what’s actually happening in there, what’s getting wiped, how it’s getting wiped, and what’s doing the wiping.
9. It means meal time is a bitch.
It means knowing that if you can find the energy and motivation to prepare a meal, there will be a fight over something anyway, even if you make them mac and cheese with sprinkles of edible glitter on it and serve root beer floats as a chaser.
10. It means having a come-to-Jesus talk with yourself about the harsh reality that it’s never going to get easier.
Your strong-willed child will always be strong-willed, so they’ll always be a challenge. They’ll exhaust you at age 3. And still at 10. And even more as a teenager. There’s no “turning a corner” or “Yay! Things are easier now!” moment coming, so you can stop waiting and hoping for it and just buy more wine instead.
11. And it means exhaustion on exhaustion.
It means that after the 2-hour bedtime battle over bath (That’s not enough bubbles!), pajamas (Not those dinosaur pajamas! The OTHER dinosaur pajamas!), teeth-brushing (I can do it!), how many books to read (That’s not enough!), and how many drinks is enough drinks (Three!), once they’re finally blissfully asleep, you crawl to the couch for an hour of mindless TV that you watch in a zombie-like trance, only to get up a few hours later and do it all over again.
12. But most of all, parenting a strong-willed child means knowing nobody can parent this kid better than you.
At the end of that long day (because every day is long), you lie down next to them for a bedtime snuggle and say, “I love you” because you do, with your whole, exhausted, worn-to-the-bone self. You know that this is exactly how they were meant to be, and you are lucky to be their mama.
If you’re in the trenches (and holy shit are these long trenches) with a strong-willed kid, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you, crying in my coffee and cringing when I open the teacher’s email. But remember, our kids are probably going to rule the world someday. (As long as we can parent them through their childhood’s first.)
Cheers, parents. We got this.