“Your son is always so sweet. I can’t get over what good manners he has,” a mom recently said to me at hockey practice.
I felt an immediate dopamine hit of parental joy. “Thank you,” I told her. “That’s really nice to hear.”
“You must be doing something right!” she chirped, heading off to the parking lot.
As I watched her leave, I felt my joyful flush fade.
The thing is, if my doing something right resulted in this polite, easy-going boy, then I must have done something wrong in the way I parented my unapologetically defiant daughter.
My younger child—my smart, beautiful girl—is not always (actually, not often) sweet and well-mannered. She has frequent meltdowns, not just at home, but also at school or out in the community. She is capable of cringe-inducing rudeness: At 11, she was even dropping F-bombs into conversations with teachers and day-camp counsellors.
My daughter will put up a holy resistance to even the most seemingly benign requests: She is willing to die on the hill of putting her plate in the dishwasher. She goes ballistic when asked to tidy up her craft supplies from the dining room table, so that we can eat dinner. (And God forbid she doesn’t like what’s for dinner.) Diagnosed with anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder, she’s exceptionally bright and she’s also exceptionally hard to parent.
I’d argue that I didn’t do anything right or wrong when it comes to my children’s innate temperaments. I’ve concluded that their brains are wired differently, so they respond in very different ways to the stimuli the world throws at them. My son was a calm, easy-going baby from the get-go—a good sleeper. He intuitively got social cues, quietly backed away from drama, shrugged off setbacks, and for the most part did what he was asked to do. My daughter came into the world seemingly pre-programmed to see almost any interaction as a struggle for dominance, for her very survival, and any setback as an insurmountable catastrophe. We have neuropsychological evaluations that show that her brain simply doesn’t process emotions typically. All those meltdowns, that backtalk, what looks like plain old orneriness: it ain’t fun, but to her it’s as much a part of life as breathing.
And it’s also not my fault. Or her father’s. Or hers, for that matter. It’s just the way she is.
Look, it’s not that I don’t try to have some influence. I go to bat for both my kids to find the resources they need to thrive, and I do my best to model for them the kind of behaviour I hope they’ll exhibit in the world. Some days, I do a better job than other days. And most days, I do a fairly decent job, at least according to the doctors, social workers and parent educators I’ve worked with.
I could do the best job in the world, though, and my daughter would still be challenging. Just as I could neglect my son utterly (don’t worry—I won’t), and he’d probably still be pretty easy-going. In the nature/nurture war, experience has convinced me that nature dominates. That doesn’t mean we don’t nurture our kids. But we nurture them within a framework that nature, in large part, dictates.
And, unfortunately, we nurture them within a social framework that tends to either blame or reward parents for their children’s behaviour. That framework, in my experience, isn’t nearly broad enough. It’s easy to give me a parental thumbs-up when my son holds open a door for the person behind him or lets a little kid go ahead of him in line. It’s rare (as in, it never happens) that another adult will come up to me midway through my daughter’s explosion at a restaurant and congratulate me on the fact that she’s had only one explosion instead of three at the meal and that she tried a bite of Caesar salad without protest — both major triumphs in our world.
Parents of kids with behavioural challenges may be doing lots of stuff right — we’re just not necessarily getting the same “results” that we might get for a neurotypical kid with an easy temperament.
As my daughter’s parent, my job is to do my best to help her navigate a world that she can find as mystifying and challenging as it finds her. In the end, the brutal truth is that I’ll only be able to do so much. The rest will be up to her, and my job will be to accept that, painful as it may be. I will encourage (and applaud) the positives, mitigate (and mourn) the negatives, love her hard and muddle through.
According to that logic, I’m doing right by both my kids. And that, really, is the best I can do as a mom.
This article was originally published online in April 2018.