Mary Kate McDevitt

True Parent 4

Parent to Parent

Dancing on the Edge

Playtime (With Just a Touch of Pot)

Ask the Parent!

Sanity-Saving Air Travel Tips!

Why Talk About God?

A Lack of Education

If I only had the second and fourth of my four children, I would be the most smuggest mother.

From the start, my “Blondies” (a girl and a boy, both with light blonde hair) were what you’d call “easy babies.” Compliant. Cooperative. Sunshine-y. Empathetic and eager to please. Sleep training? A painless couple of nights had them happily in their own beds. Potty training? Handled nearly independently by two years of age. Notes from my Blondie daughter’s teacher attest she’s an eager listener and “a wonderful role model for her class.” Her littlest brother—a toddler—seems to be following a similar pattern, and when given instructions, one of his favorite responses is, “Yes sir, my captain!”

Parenting them is not without typical kid challenges, but if I only had my Blondies, I’d absolutely wonder what could possibly be so hard about this parenting gig.

But as it happens, I have two other children who keep me humble. Very, very humble.

My first and third children—both boys with dark brown hair and eyes—are my “Brownies.” They possess boundless energy... and spunk. Lots and lots of spunk. If my Blondies are my sugar, my Brownies bring the spice. The stories we tell of their outbursts in public places are (now, after the passage of time) hilarious and cringe-worthy. Memories of their potty and sleep trainings are nearly traumatic for my husband and I.

We have regular conferences with their teachers to discuss impulse control and “how to express anger properly.” Early on one of them was nicknamed, “The Destructicon,” because he’s always had a penchant for taking things apart, no matter the consequences. They are responsible for our home’s every call to poison control, and the reason why their aunt no longer leaves a candle burning in the bathroom when we visit.

And they have to be told things like, “Today we’ll be meeting Dad’s new boss again. This time DON’T SPANK HIS BUTT!!” They are affectionate, fun, curious, creative boys who just have big, big feelings and wrestle with restraint and self-discipline.

In my darker moments as a mother, I feel convinced that my Brownies’ difficult times are a direct reflection of our parenting. There’s nothing in my life I’ve been more insecure about. If only we were more strict/lenient/ hands-off/hands-on/attentive/consistent/whatever else, surely their discipline woes would be no more. Or at least, they wouldn’t be that kid in their class.

But looking back, I can’t deny that my husband and I have poured our efforts into providing structure, boundaries, nurturing, and above all, love. I have read and applied the advice in parenting books about strong-willed children until I cannot stomach any more. Our spicy Brownies are just wired a little differently from their siblings... and that’s a really wonderful thing.

I had a sobering moment recently when we were discussing a safety issue together. I told them that under no circumstances are they to go anywhere with someone they don’t know without permission from their parents. Not in a car, not in a building, not in a bathroom, not behind a wall or bush or anywhere else—even if the adult is crying and saying they are looking for their lost dog. They can totally ask me if we can help together, but without my permission, their duty is to confidently tell the person “No!” and get away from the situation.

My Brownies had no problem with that directive. They boldly exclaimed exactly what they’d say and do and how much swagger they’d say it with, until things dissolved into them practicing martial arts moves on each other—just in case that was necessary, too. But as I noticed my daughter’s face crinkling with anxiety, I tried to calm her fears.

“Honey, the chances of you being in this kind of situation are very, very slim,” I told her. “There are not tons of bad people in the world, but it’s good to be prepared. Sort of the way we practice for fires, you know?”

“But Mom, even if they’re crying??,” she wailed. “And looking for their little lost dog?? I have to tell them no?? Mom, that would be so hard for me! I hope I never ever have to say that to anyone!”

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

Her angst wasn’t for her personal safety, but because the idea of telling this fictional adult “No”—even for her own wellbeing—was simply too uncomfortable.

I mulled over that moment for a while. In my years as a mother, I have poured so much energy and emotion into reigning in my spirited Brownies, to teach them to listen well and not hit/yell/talk back/touch every single glass thing in the store, and to not be so resistant all the time. But this was one of the most striking examples that, while being compliant and “easy” might make for painless parenting, I would be doing my Brownies a disservice if I didn’t recognize their strong personalities can be a real asset. They are not at all afraid to fight passionately for themselves, and for others, as I’ve seen in the past.

And, as rightly as I praise my Blondies when they try so very hard to obey the rules and think of others’ feelings, they just as surely need their mama to teach them how to be assertive, even confrontational, when appropriate. Sure, the chances of them being lured away by a creep are, thankfully, low. But there will be many instances—throughout childhood, teenage years, college, career, family rearing, and so on—when the ability to be assertive will be every bit as essential to them as being dutiful and accommodating.

Knowing this, I try to let myself off the “forever guilty” hook. I absolutely believe that parenting is important and that I’m far from having it all figured out. But I haven’t failed them just because I can’t find the elusive magic parenting formula for producing perfect little cherubs who are always sweet as can be. I’ll do my best to love them and help them embrace their strengths and manage their weaknesses. But ultimately, they are who they are—and that’s all I’d ever want them to be.