Parenting isn’t just about teaching our kids. Often times, they’re actually teaching us.
Stubborn. Adamant. Strong-willed. These are just a few words I would use to describe my kids.
And while it may seem as though I’m being negative — after all, these traits don’t sound admirable — I’m not. I love and adore my children.
I’m proud to have difficult kids.
Of course, that may sound strange. After all, raising rigid, willful children is a challenge.
My 18-month-old refuses to sleep and says no constantly. He wags his finger in the air and flings his 20-plus pound body on the floor. And my 7-year-old can throw one heck of a tantrum. She’s emotional and empathetic. She wears her heart on her sleeve.
But being vocal, outspoken, determined, and dogged isn’t a detriment. It’s a strength — now and in their future — because it will empower them.
It will help them be strong, confident, and have a voice.
Here are seven lessons I’ve learned from my difficult kids:
Growing up, I was something of a meek and meager child. I was quiet and soft-spoken. I rarely raised my hand in class.
I went with the crowd, not because I wanted to, but because it was easy. Because I was terrified of confrontation.
I walked the streets and halls with my eyes turned down. As I passed people, I whispered things like “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” but no “hi.” Never “hi.” The reason? I felt guilty for existing. I apologized for most of my actions as well as perceived misgivings.
But my daughter doesn’t do that. At all. And she’s teaching me to do the same. Through her actions, I am learning to apologize less and talk more.
When people ask me who or what I want to be when I “grow up,” I say my daughter because it’s true.
She is strong, smart, powerful, and confident. She is her authentic self.
She also knows what she wants: to do, to eat, to be. And that’s inspiring. She embraces the awkward. She laughs loudly and unapologetically, and because of her, I’m learning it’s OK to take up space and be myself.
My daughter got together with some first-grade friends last week for a play date, and to say they had a blast was an understatement. They sang. They danced. They ran, played, and swam. But when one of her friends suggested playing a game, my daughter shrugged. She said “no.”
Why? Because she wasn’t feeling it. She didn’t want to, and instead of causing a problem or an issue, my daughter and her friends just moved on. They found an activity they could all enjoy.
Do I expect this to always be the case? No. She cannot and will not always get her way. But I am proud of her for speaking up. For having an opinion and not being afraid to express it or use her voice.
An unexpected lesson I’ve learned from having strong-willed children is the art of negotiation. Why? Because having determined, dogged, and spirited kids has taught me how to handle difficult situations with poise, grace, and — yes — a little craftiness.
It has taught me how to debate and the art of negotiation. And having difficult children has reminded me I need to choose my battles and let the little things go.
While it’s hard having difficult kids, my son and daughter have taught me how to stop and pause. How to step back and how to breathe, slowly and deeply.
Things don’t always go as planned when you have stubborn, strong-willed children.
My daughter, for example, shuns dinner most nights and my son wakes most evenings, leaving me bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived. But because he’s awake, I’ve gotten to appreciate the moonlight and stare at the stars. I’ve had time to read and write and watch “The Office” on repeat, and I’ve gotten lots of mother-son snuggle time, which I cherish.
If you have a strong-willed child, know this: They will always be strong-willed. You cannot suppress them or change them. It’s part of who they are.
But their behavior may change you, in great and unexpected ways. Just be flexible, be patient, and go with the flow.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few. When her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.