“Sometimes the most difficult kids to parent make the most interesting adults.”
I’ll never forget those words.
I heard them from Abigail Disney. We were in D.C. at a meeting and serendipity sat us at a table next to each other. The granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, Abigail Disney told me she had four children. I looked at her with wide eyes. I had two small children being cared for by my husband while I was traveling. I had mentioned in an offhand way that my sweet firstborn had morphed into a defiant, stubborn, and very opinionated toddler and that it was hard for me to be patient with her foibles and ceaseless demands.
“Jennifer,” she replied, “sometimes the most difficult kids to parent make the most interesting adults.”
With that many children I knew Abigail Disney knew what she was talking about.
We had that conversation nearly two decades ago. My oldest will soon be turning 21. She attends an Ivy League college, she’s an outspoken feminist, she loves to knit and bake and mountain bike. She’s equally at home wearing a pair of work jeans and installing curtains as she is in front of a make-up mirror putting on eyeliner and mascara. With us now because her school is closed during these trying coronavirus times, she’s been re-reading all of the Harry Potter novels. A competitive gymnast in high school, she likes to do back flips on the trampoline with her 10-year-old sister. She also speaks fluent French. She loves to help people, learn about new cultures, debate politics, dance, make elaborate fru-fru cocktails, and watch what I consider bad TV on YouTube.
She is one of the most interesting adults I know. And she was, honestly, a card-carrying member of the difficult kids club. With such a strong will and so many opinions, she was not an easy child to parent.
We were always very close. I know she has lots of good memories of her childhood. When she was little we played pretend: going on a “safari” to catch the lions and tigers that roamed the African savannah, trying bathtub “soup” that tasted disgusting (pee-yew!), and visiting with my twin sister Nenny. She came with me on many work trips, including one that involved spending a day at EuroDisney in Paris after I was hired to write a family travel Paris guide.
And we often fought. I know she also has many not-so-good memories of her childhood. We were often impatient with each other. With three younger siblings, she felt like she didn’t get enough attention. Our family was frequently strapped for cash while most of her friends’ families were wealthy, which was alienating for her.
Parenting is ever evolving and ever changing. The relationship you have with your children changes, sometimes from hour to hour and day to day. Certainly it is true what Abigail Disney said: that sometimes the most difficult kids to parent make the most interesting adults.
So if you’re in the throes of parenting difficult kids, what do you do?
- Take the long view. Today was hard. Tomorrow will be better. This year was hard. Next year will be better. Children tend to develop in fits and starts. Six months is the magic number. A difficult 7-year-old may become an absolute delight at seven and a half.
- Catch them doing something right. Always putting a positive spin on their behavior will help you keep your sanity. Believe me. So when your child stuffs a bar of soap down the shower spout and clogs it, doing think of him as a miscreant, think of him as a scientist. After all, that’s what he’s doing: a scientific experiment to see different states of soap matter and how much it takes to clog a drain.
- Be forgiving of your difficult kids and, especially, of yourself. You might lose it. A lot. That’s okay. You can be kind to yourself (“I didn’t respond the way I wish I had this time. I will try not to yell next time.”) and you can apologize to them (“I’m sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you for drawing on the wall. Paper is for drawing on. Not walls. But I wish I had handed you a piece of paper instead of getting so angry.”)
- Figure out what you both love to do and spend time doing it together. My son and I both loved basketball and frisbee. He also played soccer and would sometimes deign to be my coach. He’s 16 now and plays croquet with my husband. So maybe it’s biking together. Maybe it’s baking. Maybe it’s something as simple as making some bubbly water or a smoothie and watching bad TV. Whatever you both enjoy, make a point of doing it together. This gets a lot harder when they’re teenagers, but if you’re willing to be interested in what they are doing, you’ll be surprised at how willing they become to let you in.
- Keep a family journal (and your own journal as well). All those difficult moments make for some hilarious dinner table conversation once the storms have passed. You’ll be glad you recorded them. You can write a journal to each child, keep a family journal that everyone writes in (ours is in the bathroom. The idea is when you’re spending some, uh, quality time on the toilet, you can use it to write an entry), and also have a journal of your own as a non-judgmental place to vent.
Another thing that really helped us with the times when we were parenting several difficult kids at once was installing a heavy bag in the garage. If your kids are pushing all your buttons, give yourself a time-out and go punch a heavy bag, go for a fast run, or scream into a pillow in your room with the doors closed.
Abigail Disney was right. Difficult kids become interesting adults. If we parent our difficult kids with self-forgiveness, humor, and patience, we get to watch them grow into interesting adults.