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Guest Column: Raising a difficult child

July 25, 2012

By Eileen Wacker

I strive to be a great parent. I have moments of glory and others of massive doubt and worry. Because I constantly revisit the question, “What is a good parent?” And for every happy, proud moment, there are a thousand small deaths endured as a parent. I die a small death every time my child gets cut from a team, left out of a birthday party or receives a bad grade. And, seriously, my kids are not always dying with me. It’s often me bleeding and worried, and they are texting and making plans, leaving their potential at the door as they walk out.

I have four children, aged 8-14. My 14-year-old daughter is “the pleaser,” my 13-year-old son is a “swagger-in-training,” my 10-year-old son is a combination “swagger-in-training apprentice and hide-and-seek addict” and my 8-year-old daughter is a “puppy-worshipping tomboy.”

As parents, we want them to have happy productive lives, and we see their potential more than anyone. All we want is for them to do their best at every moment so they do not miss out. How did we get so unrealistic? They are not a reflection of us, but a reflection of them, most of which is hard-wired in. This has resulted in over-parenting of some of our kids and the assumption our easiest to raise will glide through life as a result of our excellent parenting.

Our most “over-parented” child is our second child, otherwise known as “swagger in training.” He goes to a school for gifted dyslexics wearing his Vans, jeans, a flatback cap, T-shirt and inexpensive chain. We rarely have a positive parent conference as he is disorganized (forgets everything), opinionated and moves around … a lot. If he weren’t my child, many of his stories would be hilarious, like when he called 911 last week just to see what would happen and then hung up and did not answer when the police called back. So, of course, the police came to our home. We were on Kauai for several hours, so the phone call from the police (who assumed we had left our two oldest alone for the weekend) screamed “bad parent.” It all worked out, but I’m starting to have this face tic when I see certain numbers crop up. Then, two days later, we go to a school event, and he has a posse of friends, is very funny in his presentation and recognized for his athleticism. I feel the shock of pride watching his moment of triumph.

All of a sudden, I had this shiver of doubt. Could the hardest child to raise in fact be the one most prepared for life?

As a contrast, my first child is very easy. We call her “the pleaser.” She runs with me and is part of student government. Her parent conferences are always great, as she has a positive, sunny attitude and never ever misbehaves in class. She works hard and manages to pull mainly “Bs” and actually practices her piano. Am I being a bad parent, loving her for always going along and never being defiant toward us or any adult? The shiver gets stronger.

Could the easiest child to raise end up being less successful because of the behavior I am reinforcing? I can’t get this question out of my mind …

I struggle every day to keep perspective related to my children. I have so many hopes and dreams for them. Realistically, I know they will determine their own path, but I “mommy-lobby” endlessly for them to do certain things. So, I need to change — the old me tries to correct every flaw and ensure they don’t miss an opportunity. The new me sees my difficult child as someone with strengths I need to notice and nurture and my daughter as someone who needs to learn to stand up and say no once in a while.

Our youngest daughter is 8 and has been to four birthday parties in four years. She is a tomboy and would not be caught dead in a dress or attend a tea party or anything remotely “fluffy.” The old me worried — why don’t the girls like her? The new me embraces her sunny disposition and sporty prowess, and feels relieved she is strong enough to make her own path and select friends she shares interests with.

Our 10-year-old son watches everything, and his favorite expression is “it’s not fair.” He is never left out and always gets his fair share. He does the bare minimum at school and still gets straight As in fourth grade. The old me worried when it starts to get harder, he will not have the good study habits of his older sister. The new me admires he has the heart of a lion and is always in the thick of everything.

It is very difficult — as a parent I have caught and corrected flaws at every turn. I nurtured the early reader, applauded the reluctant bike rider and attended every athletic event. So, the old me is still in there, but the new me is going to be a lot more visible. I just got a call from school — “swagger in training” was sent to the office for holding his breath in an attempt to get light-headed. I feel the face tic thing again. But I am rooting for the difficult child to be successful in life.

Eileen Wacker, a Harvard Business School graduate, lived and worked in seven different countries, including the United States. She commuted to Asia for nearly three years as part of a business development team, which sparked her interest in Asian culture. Wacker now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii, with her husband and four children, one of whom is a daughter adopted from China. For more information, visit her website at http://www.oncekids.com.

From the July 25-31, 2012, issue

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