The Humbling Moments of Raising a Strong-Willed Child

My son peed on my friend’s pants. It wasn’t an “Ooops!-My-lil’-sweet-pea’s-diaper-leaked-some tee-tee!” kinda-pee. My almost-three-year-old pulled down his pants, set up his aim with precision, and fire-hosed the folded jeans.

Every parent has laughable potty-training stories. But this incident wasn’t just a learning-bladder-control mishap; it was a desperate act of attention-seeking and defiance by the two-year-old tyrant “future leader” that was currently running my life. Everyone else in the room laughed. I stifled tears as I frantically whisked the jeans away to the laundry room.

I’ve heard, “Don’t break your strong-willed child’s spirit.” But my oldest child has come close to breaking mine. I *affectionately* refer to the to the span from when he was fifteen months to three years old as the “I promise he’s not always like this (he’s always like this) years.” During those months, he avoided a concussion, but broke an arm (changing table tantrum); he gave me the *opportunity* to call in reinforcements (teachers, grandparents, pitying-moms) on numerous occasions to wrestle his body into my SUV (car seat tantrums); and he was dragged through the Chick-Fil-A dining room and parking lot (forced-to-leave-playground tantrum) (We were SO glad to learn that our audience at Chick-Fil-A included multiple acquaintances that we’d get to face again.)

Parenting a strong-willed, unpredictable boy has not short-changed me any humbling moments, and there was a phase where I chose avoidance over courage. I found myself declining invitations in case my son would have a “moment.” Some of my hesitations were well-founded knowing my son’s limits. Others were . . . not. Attend a puppet show? “Mmmm . . . better not. My son might drop trou and take aim at a marionette.” Fly to visit grandparents? “No, thanks. We’d like to avoid being added to the ‘no-fly list.’”

We experienced enough “moments” that I feared people might start to dread finding the Thorsons on a guest list. After all, we shattered a patio table at one party, screamed like a banshee during lunch at another party, and decided to blaze our own trail as the group-photo-boycotter at most parties. I became engulfed in self-blame, embarrassment, and its evil accomplice comparison. I began to obsess over wondering if people thought these behaviors were all my fault. “Everyone” else’s lil’ punkins sat during story time, kept food on their plates during meal time, and used toys as playthings, not projectiles, during play time. Meanwhile, you could find me on my hands and knees cleaning up the chicken nugget catapult while my son played hopscotch on the storytime magic carpet.

But a few years into being gripped by parenting paranoia, I began to recognize that my fears of perception were a bigger problem than my son’s behavior. As simplistic as this sounds, I realized that I had very little exposure to toddlers prior to having my own, and I think my expectations for “normal” behavior were skewed. (I might also add that the majority of our play-dates for the first two years of my son’s life were with friends of mine who only had infant girls. I think I began to expect my little Wolverine to act more like Doc McStuffins.)

Once we began to spend more time with other toddler boys, I was able to confirm my son hadn’t cornered the market on limitless energy. Other moms of boisterous boys (and threenager girls) reassured me that they, too, battled public tantrums and days-on-end of discipline. (Although, I’m still holding out to find a fellow jeans-pee-er. Anyone?)

As my son approaches five years old, I actually am seeing that his strong will can be channeled productively: His teacher told me he refuses to join into the “mean” crowd (there’s a mean crowd in pre-K?); he won’t put down the basketball until he ends on a “good” shot; and he recently decided on his own that he’d had “too much sweets” and wanted to wait two more days before having anymore.

So hang on, parents of two- and three-year-old dictators: Celebrate their strengths, cling to yours, and look (listen) for me in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot if you need a little reassurance. Then you can say,  “At least we aren’t them.”