The Weakness of Parenting a “Strong Willed” Child

Church this week went like this: We got there slightly early because I was the reader and Henry played cello. The kids settled into a pew, took out their paper and all the pencils and offering envelopes in the pew back holder. They began their normal ritual of paper airplane making, fighting and coloring. Wyatt continually wanted my attention as I tried to listen to instructions and have a quick conversation about the reading. The service started but the loud talking and fighting didn’t stop. Many times, I had to lean over to have word with them or stand in between them and Wyatt often had to be asked two or three times to show me he was listening. Nothing I did made much of a difference in their behavior. Then it came time for the kids to gather up front to be dismissed to their classes. After months of battling to get them to go to Sunday school, because we knew it would be good for them to make friends, Wyatt has decided he no longer likes it. So, as I am trying to keep hold of Ginny’s hand and assure Gilead I’m coming with them, I’m trying to pull Wyatt along and let him know it’s going to be okay.

He’s screaming and red-faced, holding onto the side of the pew with his other hand and digging in his heels in the middle aisle. I’m the last mom there – the only person left standing in the front of the whole church – and this is what’s happening. I wish I could say it’s not normal but it, or something like it, happens every single week. There’s always screaming and whining. It’s constant at home as well. On our way to the class in the parish house, I have to reassure him every two steps in order to get him to come. And then there’s a dog. It’s in a cage, behind a fence, but he believes it’s going to be inside the house and this starts up a whole new round of whining, all the way up the stairs. Once we get to his classroom and seated, he’s fine, as I knew he would be.

Later, at the all-church lunch, we end up sitting outside with the overflow crowd. The problem is that the dog is there too. It’s on a leash, surrounded by other kids (who are all thrilled, by the way), but Wyatt is beside himself with fear. It’s impossible to carry on a conversation or eat my own meal. He can’t be reasoned-with. He’s screaming and crying; genuinely terrified.

By the time we finish our meal, I am exhausted. I am ready to go home. There’s nothing anyone else can do to help me, and I can’t participate in the social scene there at the church picnic. And this is what most of our outings are like – even if it’s just going out in our yard.

Wyatt is often the only kid in the whole place who is afraid of something, like the dog, or doing something, like screaming and whining that sets him apart from all the other kids. For this reason, as well as how we are often left to deal with his outbursts, we feel singled out, left out, embarrassed, and like failures.

But I don’t describe this to get pity. Much less do I want anyone to figure out his problem for me. I felt like we’d already been through the same thing with Gilead, just about different issues. We were told he was hyperactive by nursery workers. He was always the kid hurting other kids at a play date; mortifying me. I’m somewhat inured to the embarrassment of Wyatt because I had already had to accept it before. Gilead grew out of some of that. I have a feeling, however, that Wyatt is always going to be a challenge. I don’t have time to go into all of my intuitions about him here, but he’s a unique challenge. He doesn’t seem to fit into any boxes. I love him so dearly but he exhausts me and there often is no logical solution to any given problem with him.

And yes, we’ve been given lots of advice. All over the map. In fact, it’s almost excruciating to come up for prayer because inevitably, advice follows. It’s always well-meant. But do you know how hard it is to be in this position? If you do know, then you really know, I bet. You feel my pain and embarrassment. If you don’t know, it’s okay. There are other issues in your life I don’t get.

In every church I’ve ever been in, even the ones heavy on the prayer ministry, and with almost every Christian person I’ve met the response to someone hurting, openly needy and asking for help is usually the same: concern and well-meant advice with a sprinkling of prayer. It’s highly unusual to meet someone who can bear to sit with you in your pain and accept you and what’s happening to you.

Do you know that it is a much, much harder thing to receive help than to give help? That’s why we give each other all kinds of systems for parenting. It’s a lot less scary to sit in a seminar or read a book and implement a system than it is to confess that you don’t know how to help your kid. To suffer the embarrassment of their public bad behavior and then have the humility to say you know you need God’s help and ask for prayer.

I have to confess that I’m so tired of advice. I am tired of self-righteousness in Church.

Yes, advice can be helpful. Yes, sometimes someone sees something in a way that you can’t, and God can use their words. More often, it confuses the issue. It makes me think that if I can just pluck up enough determination, I can really turn this thing around. It points me away from the truth.

What’s that? What truth, you say?

Well, I’m beginning to see this weakness-as-strength thing as the all-pervasive truth. Maybe the only truth there is in the universe. If it’s true that I come to Jesus with nothing morally, and that even the good I do is tainted by sin (this is what Romans says), then it’s true in the realm of parenting as well. Even my good intentions, even the good I do toward my children suffers the same fate.

And what does Romans say about all that? “There is now no condemnation.”

No condemnation

I have to tell you, those rules and systems and pieces of advice feel a whole lot like condemnation. Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why do we keep giving each other advice instead of giving each other ourselves? Because it’s easier. It’s less scary. It’s less time-consuming. It’s less humbling – especially when you can get yourself in the position of teacher or advice-giver. And then you start to get a whole church full of advice givers. I know. I’ve done it and have aspired to do it for many years. I’m just as guilty as anyone else in church. But I am truly, truly sick of it.

It took me years to unlearn some subliminal messages about the nature of God because of what I thought I was hearing from authority figures in my life: that I had to be good for God to accept me, that He was mad at me or couldn’t hear me when I prayed to Him because of sin in my life. I definitely don’t want to start seeing God as advice-giver, because he’s not.

The only parenting model I want to follow is the one I’ve been shown in Jesus. And I hope someone on the periphery of the church is going to read this and that they will be able to hear past how those words sound, because this really is good news. I talk church talk because I’ve been steeped in it. But anyway, God has never parented me this way. Jesus has never befriended me this way.

This morning, in the shower, I found myself trying to strip this down to its most essential question. Can I love Wyatt even if he never changes? I feel so unworthy, so inept. And most of the time, too tired. And then, on the heels of that, Jesus can you love me even if I never change?

Do you love me even if this is all there is?

Did anyone else make their husband take them to see Tully on Mother’s Day? No? That was just me? Well, I have to say that it definitely struck a chord. I would recommend it. 

I didn’t need any kind of supernatural answer to that question, even though I did feel His presence in the answer. Because I already know the answer. It’s yes, of course. He goes before me. He loves me into being human enough to love him back. He’s NEVER given me a set of rules to follow. In fact, this religion is hard to understand from the outside because it isn’t, properly, a religion. It’s devotion to a person. And that person came to die, to be humiliated, to suffer for me. He’s only calling me to do for Wyatt what he’s done for me. Not manipulate him into having better behavior, but actually to pour myself out for his sake, so that he can be changed by love. Do you see the difference? One of those things is primarily for my sake – so that I can not be embarrassed by Wyatt’s bad behavior, so that my life doesn’t have to be so interrupted. The other is a labor of love. It requires me to see beyond the bad that Wyatt is doing right now in order to call out his true self. It requires me to put down my agenda in order to sit with Wyatt and really see him. It requires that I put aside my own needs sometimes because he needs me to calm his fears and correct his wrong ways of thinking. It means I have to cuddle when I want to put him in time-out. Or, more often, do both. It requires nothing less than a kind of death; to me. To self. Because if I don’t do it; if I refuse to suffer for Wyatt, then Wyatt suffers for me, for my selfishness.

I realized yesterday this principle can pretty much be applied across the board. I like the line “if it’s us or them, it’s us for them” from the Gungor song Us For Them. Maybe that’s something of what it means to be a spiritual parent to someone whether or not you have a biological child. It’s certainly what it means to follow Christ. I’ll just channel Tim Keller here and say that this is therefore the only absolute truth claim it’s safe to make. That’s why we get so dogged about it, us Christians.

And I have no hope of doing this on my own.

That doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. On the contrary. It’s just scary because I can’t put any hope in my own performance. I have to put it all in Christ and what He’s done. Even when I can barely hope. Even when I can’t pray. Even when I can’t see the truth.

But thank God, right?

6 thoughts on “The Weakness of Parenting a “Strong Willed” Child

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  1. I just read this. All morning I’ve been trying to put into words what I’m feeling. I didn’t go to church on Sunday because I couldn’t do it alone. My husband was out of town. I’ve spent so many Sundays in the parking lot angry My first born has sensory processing issues, middle is deaf and my last has Down syndrome which includes so so many things. I don’t even want to be around people with typical kids. I know it sounds horrible but I just don’t. And, if one more person tells me how cute my girls are…I haven’t had communion in a month!

  2. I can’t go to church because my children have severe autism. If we could actually go everyone would see their real anxiety and their real lack of understanding and their real inability to march along with the other kids without getting overwhelmed and emotional as bad behaviour. It’s not bad behaviour. It’s their reality. People give advice because they are behaviour focused. Church is the worst because religion is behaviour focused.

    1. Church is often the worst, you’re right, when you’re someone whose behavior doesn’t conform. Much of my experience of church in childhood was learning a way of hiding all your bad stuff in plain sight. I think evil finds a good hiding place in church. We often go there to hide our own evil from ourselves. I love this St. Therese of Lisieux quote: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus.” Those of us who were raised in church often can’t tolerate being displeasing to ourselves, and that’s a dangerous place to be in. I think God giving me an embarrassing child or two was his mercy to me, and also a sign that he loves and trusts me. My heart goes out to you with two non-verbal children, although you seem to be doing an amazing job leaning into that life. I think it’s inspiring to see your quest for truth, goodness and beauty in the midst of a kind of life you probably wouldn’t have wished for yourself. What a feast you have waiting for you in heaven!

      1. I’m too impatient to wait for heaven. I’m getting in on the feast of doing God’s will here and now. It’s only been recently that I think I understand what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples “I have a bread you know nothing about.” I really hate the endless advice too but that’s because it comes from a place of ignorance. But I never want God to stop giving me advice. He is the suffering servant – no ignorance there. His advice lights up my darkness. It’s just sometimes a long time coming cause he lets me be a suffering servant too. Thanks for your transparency. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of your blog.

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