Five (okay, six) things I don’t regret as my oldest son turns FIVE. // Photographer in Lincoln Nebraska

February 15, 2018

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Photo by Taura Horn

In honor of my son Silas’ FIFTH birthday next week, I decided to share a list of things I DON’T regret in parenting him.

Silas is a super kid. He came into the world with a roar – and I just know he’s going to be a world changer one day! He’s the poster “strong willed child” with an intensity and strong spirit to reckon with. He’s EXTRA of everything: passionate, emotional, defiant, spirited, intelligent, anxious, creative.  Since he was our firstborn, it’s been a wild ride – we were learning how to be parents while also learning how to be parents *to Silas* and his high needs personality.

We faltered a lot as new parents, I mean, I think most new parents mess up pretty often because how could you not? But even though we leaned strongly towards the “attachment parent” approach during the newborn and infant stages, the toddler years brought out our deep-seated parenting reflexes that were traditional, punitive, and authoritarian. When he was about 2/2.5 we began shifting towards a paradigm that instead emphasizes grace, respect, connectedness and cooperation. Very quickly we saw how these concepts pulled his heart closer to us. Rather than being locked into nonstop battles with us against his extraordinarily strong will, his primary attitude shifted towards trust and cooperation. Being a parent was (and still is) a process of un-learning a lot of mainstream mindsets about parenting and childhood development. We are (always!) in the process of training our own hearts towards self-control, grace and Christ-likeness above all.

Now, I’m only 5 years into this momming gig. I’m not sharing a list of wins because I believe I’ve done everything right with parenting. If I was making a list of my parenting regrets, that list would be a lot longer. But in the spirit of positivity, here are some of the big things I don’t regret doing for my now five year old son.

1. Laying with Silas until he falls asleep at night

This started out as necessity – because we had no other way for Silas to fall asleep. (He had tons of sleep issues when he was younger, but *praise hands* has grown out of them all naturally, without any crude training.) While we do have other ways to get him to sleep while I’m not home, overall I’m so grateful to have this as our nightly routine. We both get to wind down from the day, tell stories, giggle, apologize for things, and snuggle in his bed as he falls asleep. This isn’t always the most convenient for me (I mean, what in parenting IS convenient?), and it isn’t 100% total sweetness every night. But it’s often a beautiful time rich with connection and sweet moments. And I know he appreciates it so profoundly.

2. Being quick and free with apologies when I’ve messed up

This is for all my kids, not just Silas! I can see how it smooths over so many rough moments and poor choices on my part. It takes swallowing my pride, sure. That’s hard. But I’d rather feel humble than my kids think grownups or parents are inerrant or above the law. I’ve also tried hard to teach that when we wrong someone, we “say something AND do something” to make it right. (We don’t require instant verbal “sorries” from our kids but instead we encourage them to do something kind or helpful for the other person.) Silas knows when I’ve messed up, and he’s free to tell me so (and he does!) so I might as well admit to it. 😉

3. Not being a “mean mom”

Okay, I know what people intend when they say you have to be a mean mom sometimes. Tough love and all that, right? Our kids just aren’t going to like every rule we make, this is true. But let me tell you: we can have rules and limits WITHOUT being mean-spirited or spiteful.  Silas knows the difference between when I keep a necessary boundary with empathy, and when I’m just being unkind. He doesn’t have to be happy about a limit – but I shouldn’t add to his natural upset with my own rudeness, shaming, punishing or glee. Grownups should know the difference between being authoritative and being mean – and I really believe our kids are smart enough to see that too. We also have a saying “It’s okay to be sad or mad, but it’s not okay to be mean.” Sometimes Silas has to remind me of this.

4. Having firm boundaries when needed, but not being afraid to change my mind/plan

Children need boundaries and limits to feel safe. They want and need our knowledge and authority in their lives. But we don’t have to act perfect, unmovable, or harsh to be authoritative. This is especially true for very strong willed + spirited kids like Silas, who often have a strong intuitive sense of justice, and can see right through a grownup power-trip. He can tell when I’m just trying to hang on to something “because I said so” without good reasoning behind it. (I was a strong willed child too, and I remember how that phrase went against every sensibility I had!) Sometimes I realize something is a lot more important to Silas than I thought, and I might be able to reconsider. Or, maybe we have a conversation and together we can come to a new solution. (We try to be solution-driven most of the time, as it’s a concept that really resonates with him. It challenges him to solve problems in his own mind. I’m often surprised at the creative solutions he dreams up!) Silas respects me when I’m actively trying to work something out for him, even when the end result disappoints him. In turn, I can respect his autonomy and personhood without compromising my own authority as a parent, and that often looks like working out a better solution together when it’s possible.

5. Having the patience to find the root of his food issues

Silas’ behavior was a puzzle for a huge part of his life. We saw patterns of behavior that were confusing and so, so difficult. There were gobs of supplements, tests, healthy foods, vitamins and more that we tried. We eventually removed a few commonly observed “behavior foods” from his diet when he was three. Let me tell you, it was not an easy process. We constantly second-guessed ourselves, we or other caregivers accidentally (or carelessly!) gave him things he wasn’t supposed to have (destroying weeks of effort every time), and we found new “hidden” ingredients constantly. Eventually we settled on gluten + corn being the major triggers for him. (He’s not allergic in the immune sense, but they are still behavior triggers.) When he eats those foods, we see several days of defiance, destructiveness, impulsiveness and anger. He was nearly impossible to manage on the days when he was “out of his mind” as we called it. Now we’ve been a year and a half sticking to these rules and are so glad we kept to the process. We have found plenty of foods that work great for him, and he always asks me to look at ingredient lists. 🙂 We’ve realized the convenience of allowing a “bad snack” will make the rest of the week pretty miserable for all of us, so we’d much rather be strict about it.

6. Giving over as much power as I can // Dropping the rope

Especially with strong willed children who need to feel control over their lives, it’s hard to overstate the value of creating a true relationship of cooperation. (Not just the appearance of a well behaved child.) This requires giving real choices and power to the child. A spirited child like Silas *has* to feel that they’re working in partnership with their parents, or they will act out as kids and likely be rebellious later in life. Yes, there are “training” techniques to break the will of even a very spirited child, and use physical size/force to dominate them into external compliance. But not only is that massively harmful – it’s not necessary. Not to mention it teaches your child it’s okay to force your will on a smaller person, which is precisely what they’ll do, given the chance.

When Silas is content with the power and independence we give him, and doesn’t feel coerced and manipulated through rewards and punishments…then, guess what? He won’t NEED to fight all the time. The “fighting spirit” in a strong willed child usually comes from a deeply felt need. That need is not “bad” or “naughty”; it’s intrinsic to what makes them a human being.

So we try very hard not to micromanage Silas’s little life when we can help it. He has choices about what he wears, what/when he eats, where he plays and what/who he plays with, how he spends his tiny amounts of money, what TV shows he watches, how long his hair is, what toys he keeps “safe” in his room, whether he wears a coat or socks or shoes outside… There are boundaries and limits on almost all of these things because it’s still our job to mold, shape, teach, guide and discipline. But really, these are small things in the broader picture. And kids need a lot of practice making real choices in their lives. 😉

When Silas does want to get in a power struggle, it’s usually about something pretty small, and it can usually be traced to a larger disappointment or frustration. My strong-willed prideful nature still wants to show him “who’s the parent” and require him to submit to ME at all times. And you know what? I can win if I try hard enough. I’m a bigger person, plain and simple; and I can prove that to him. But there’s a “third way,” a peaceful solution to 99% of struggles. (See #4 above.) I have to look beyond the momentary behavior and see the underlying need. Sometimes “being the parent” means dropping the rope: quitting the tug-of-war to show my kid how powerful I am. As the adult I can decide that I’m not fighting this battle, that we’re going to find another path.

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Photo by Taura Horn

BONUS: a few more parenting non-regrets:

*Leaving tons of time in Silas’s schedule for free independent play
*Letting him sleep in our bed as much as he wants/needs
*Continually teaching kindness, reading body language, consent, gratitude and service
*Deciding to homeschool him, at least for now

I’m so glad Silas joined our family as our firstborn five years ago! You can read my thoughts on his first birthday: Motherhood Happens Slowly. (And a super adorable photoshoot.)

Good reads about strong willed children (more resources in a blog post to come)

Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child

9 Phrases for Dealing with a Strong-Willed Child

Characteristics of Strong-Willed Babies, Children and Teens

The Gift of a Strong Willed Child

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