Giving Up On the Child I Thought I’d Have, So I Can Raise the One I Was Given


I found myself Very Discouraged the other day. Defeated by parenting challenges with one of my kids. The day had been one in a string of frustrating days with this particular kid… in a string of similar weeks. Again. So deflated was I that I actually went online to try drumming up a little insight. I’ve read dozens of parenting books and posts; too many, probably. But I thought: just one new perspective-filled tidbit would help.Strong-willed child discouraged,” I told Google. Google failed me. All it turned up were links about strong-willed children who felt discouraged themselves. No Google, I fumed. Not the kid, the parent! Moms who feel discouraged in parenting their strong-willed child! Google’s unhelpfulness persisted. I moved on.

A couple weeks later I chanced upon exactly the kind of post I’d been wishing for that day. It was this one: It’s Not You, Its Him by the great Kendra Tierney of Catholic All Year (written about her sixth of eight children). This post is perhaps my favorite thing she’s ever written; almost everything in it encouraged me.

Kendra’s words brought me some clarity. In the midst of the daily frustration that comes with parenting my especially challenging child, I’m usually  thinking one or all of these three things:

1. It’s critical that we get her to quit her disruptive behaviors. Once we succeed and she stops, we can have a fruitful, enjoyable relationship.

2.  I’m/we’re doing something wrong. If I were a better mom or employed better parenting strategies (i.e., ones that consistently work), her behaviors and my frustrations would dissipate.

3. It’s impossible for our family to thrive and be the family we want/are meant to be with this kid acting this way (i.e., with her behavior challenges persisting).

Every one of those statements contains falsehood (though also some truth, which is makes them so tricky. Falsehood’s always harder to see when it’s mixed with truth.). First – it’s true that the less disruptive a kid’s behavior is, the more parents (and everyone else) enjoy being around that kid. But the kid might persist in her defiance throughout her whole childhood. What then? No enjoyment of the relationship – or the kid – for the duration of the childhood? This becomes the sad outcome of that thinking for some families. Second – some parenting strategies do work more effectively, and it’s incumbent on us to figure out what they are and then use them. But some kids – Kendra’s Frankie is a great example – will resist all parenting strategies and carry on being “a stinker” regardless. This doesn’t mean the mom’s doing something wrong. And third – a family’s harmony is clearly impacted by the negative behavior of a strong-willed or naughty child (which is one reason why we parents need to keep working our hardest to curb and management their misbehavior). But if a family’s waiting for a stubborn child to start complying before they can enjoy and appreciate each other and their home, they may be in for a long and discouraging wait. And the beleagured mom will spend more time feeling like a failure than like anything else. The negative will trump the positive every time.

It’s the discouragement, in the end, that needs as much evaluation as the kid’s misbehavior and the parenting strategies being employed. Because the discouragement can actually become THE central problem – even more than the other two. If you feel that you must get your kid to stop certain behaviors- and yet, you can’t- then you become a failure and your kid becomes (like) an enemy. The most frustrating aspects of life become magnified, and misery becomes inevitable. Everybody loses.

Worse stil, the paradigm you’ve set up creates an imaginary version of your kid in your mind – a version of your kid that retains the agreeable parts but whose challenging parts have evaporated as a result of your parenting successes. This is the child you feel you must work toward as you persevere with your correction efforts; this is the child you wish to- are trying to- love. Problem is, she’s a phantom. She doesn’t exist.

I don’t want to love an imaginary kid. I want to love my real, honest-to-goodness kid, even when she persisting in naughtiness and making me insane. And I want to get the balance between accepting her for who she is and teaching/managing her right. Tricky… but possible, as Kendra’s post reminds. You expect the kid to test and resist and misbehave. You don’t become alarmed or offended by it. You anticipate that she will continue to be… who she is. And how she is (at least, in this season). But you also keep on correcting her, and ensuring your own dignity and optimism are intact while you do it. Wherever possible, you find things to praise and enjoy in your child, and widen that swath where you can. “He’s still going to spend a significant percentage of his day in trouble, but at least there will have been SOME nice things too,” says Kendra. Amen to that. Sounds like simple truth plainly put… and a healthy balance.

My challenging child, I realize, is a centerpiece in a bigger trend of This-Is-My-Real Life mothering. Because across the board, what I need more than anything is to work toward the healthy, give up the imaginary, and enjoy the real. At dinner: work toward less interrupting. Accept there will be some interrupting. Enjoy the conversation. In home tidiness: work toward less clutter and more tidying up after ourselves. Accept the reality of some mess. Enjoy the home. In getting out the door in the morning: work toward systems that improve our odds of doing it without losing our minds. Accept the reality that some hard moments will occur. Let exiting the house be a bustling moment of a day gifted to me as part of a blessedly full life. The moments we live -all of them – are part responsibility, part sacrifice, part gift. Let me, as a mother and homemaker, accept all those pieces. The serenity prayer, mom-homemaker version.

So I’m giving up my imaginary kid… and beyond her, my whole imaginary family. The one I’ve got’s the one I need, and the one I’ll  cherish. “Stinker” (to borrow from Kendra) and all.

{P.S. It’s winter 2017, and I’ve recently made a key discovery that’s helped me understand my daughter much better. It has to do with worry, and I wrote a post about it here if you’re interested in the next segment of this story…}

This article originally appeared at

Susan Arico
Susan Arico
Susan Arico is writer, strategy consultant, wife, and mom to four. She’s a fast-talking Yankee who recently returned to her native New England after living in Crete, Greece for the past four years. Susan writes about living adventure, wrestling the soul, and figuring out what it means to do both well. Visit her at

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