To My Strong-Willed Son: I Think We Made It

by Wendy Wisner
strong-willed son
Christian Martínez Kempin / iStock

I see him standing next to his 3-year-old brother who is having a meltdown about the bagel that I just gave him. I was supposed to cut it into quarters, not in half (how could I have forgotten?!). As I try to calm him down, asking him to take a breath and use his words — telling him that if he could just stop screaming, we could talk about how to fix the bagel — my older son stands there calmly, looking at the floor with a half-smile.

Just a few months ago, he would have started in himself, plugging his ears, telling his brother to “stooooop!” Or, if he was in a particularly cranky mood, he would have told him to “shut up!” which would have only provoked him more, and then I would have had two children to discipline.

Instead, he stands there, cool as a cucumber, and when I begin to explain to my younger son that cutting it into fourths is totally possible if he would only stop thrashing about, my older son says, “Yeah, Mommy can fix it,” in the most even-tempered, helpful, mature way.

And I want to cry.

It feels like yesterday that it was him lying on the floor screaming about how I’d cut his toast, or freaking out about the color of the sippy cup I’d given him. His meltdowns were even more volcanic, though. He’d scream until these little blotches appeared under his eyes or on the top of his cheekbones. He’d kick his legs. He’d argue back to me, rationalizing the whole thing, coming up with elaborate explanations as to why he was right.

Some of them were almost believable, too. He was that good. My strong-willed son; my feisty one. The one who never, ever took no for an answer.

None of the normal discipline tactics worked for him. Diversions never helped; he was so stuck on what upset him in the first place. If I moved him to another room to attempt some sort of “time out” or “cool down,” he only got more upset. Sometimes his screams were so loud, I was afraid the neighbors would call the police.

I read books. I got advice. But then I just did what my instincts told me. I sat with him, tried to remain calm, waited it out. Eventually, he’d collapse in my lap, sobbing, and we could talk. We got better and better at dealing with those meltdowns over the years. It took a lot of trial and error, and feeling like we didn’t know what on earth we were doing, but he and I — we figured out what he needed in those moments.

This summer he turned 9 1/2. Not quite a boy, not quite a teenager. He shot up this past year; his face filled out. He seems sturdier, stronger. His headstrong nature is still there, but he’s learned to keep it in check. He can take that extra breath I’ve been suggesting he take for years, the one that stops him from flying off the handle when things don’t go his way.

I want him to know that I see how much he’s grown, inside and out. I see the amazing child he is becoming. I see him choosing the path of maturity. He sees that acting grown up is actually really powerful and cool. He owns it, just like he’s always owned everything about himself.

Everyone said that having a strong-willed child was a gift, that someday he’d be a leader, a confident person, a visionary. He was bright in many ways — wise beyond his years, a true thinker. But I didn’t quite believe things would ever get easier with him, that all this struggle and strife would be translated into something brilliant and admirable.

But I held onto the belief that it would. And at times, things were so difficult, it was all I had.

My God, I think we’re almost there. I think we made it, him and I. But I give him the credit. It wasn’t his fault that his emotions ran so deep. That’s just who he was. He was someone who felt everything, had dazzling, complicated thoughts and opinions about the world — from the way justice was supposed to work, to how our plans for how the day should unfold.

But he was trapped in a tiny body, and all those emotions were too much for him to handle.

Dear son, I’m sorry for the times I lost my patience with you. I’m sorry for the times I still do. And I apologize in advance for the ways I will lose my shit on you when you’re a teenager. Those years will be here sooner than we know it, and it will be a whole other mess for us to get tangled in.

But I know we’ll make it. We have experience. We have the trust we’ve built up over these years. The trust born of blood, sweat, and tears — trust that I couldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Most of all, I want you to know that whatever battles are still ahead of us, I see you here, now. I am so proud of the child you are becoming, and the man you will someday be. I see that man in your eyes, in the way you smile knowingly at me as your brother has his tantrum, as you rest a firm, reassuring hand on his shoulder and tell him it’s going to be okay.

The truth is, I have loved you through every stage you’ve been in. Even when every day felt like a marathon with you, I would stare at you sometimes, marveling at the fire in your heart. You only get better with age; that fire in your heart has turned into pure light, a beacon lighting the way for you to live a vibrant, amazing life.

Thank you for giving me hope, for showing me that all I had to do was try my best, follow my instincts, and love you without condition. And I do; I love you so damn much.