Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

*

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

*

The first 100 days

I adopted a new mantra when my twins were born: Life is a hurricane; I am the eye of the storm.

We are still marveling over the basics; still saying, There are two of them. My husband is working in Juneau 10 on 4 off. After two months of being mostly alone with my kids, we have reached a delicate equilibrium.

Photo by R. Evanson

Time is used for the highest possible purpose (safety/emergencies > food/toileting/sleep > cooking/laundry/dishes > art/adventures/fun. The microwave stays dirty). My thoughts travel no further than immediate needs. I make do. Who needs a third arm? I have a prehensile chin.

My combat training began with a lactation consultant who is the mother of four, including a set of twins: “You’re going to learn how to pick up a baby with one hand,” she barked. “Grab the baby by the front of his pajamas and pull him into your lap. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible, but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.”

I’ve just completed the fourth trimester with our new babies and I am learning to operate within the chaos, rather than trying to control it.

The hardest part of twins is definitely their big sister. I invest 75% of my daily energy into her. Maybe 90%. “Prioritize your big kid,” recommends my friend E, who became a twin mom last year. “The babies wont remember.”

Crying isn’t dying. “Twins cry more than a singleton,” said one mom on a twin podcast. “Everyone waits their turn. You have to accept this if you ever want want to shower again. If they’re crying, they’re breathing.”

Toren’s cry is shocking; even to the dog. His screams remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West in that scene from The Wizard of OZ where Dorothy pours water over her. What a world! What a world!

“How can you stand that?” asks my husband.

“I’m thinking about how to make fun of him in a blog post,” I say. Clearly.

*

I’ve learned to protect myself against situations where all three kids have needs (read: are crying) at the same time. Any combination of two is fine but the third has to be sleeping.

I get a lot of mileage out of lowering my standards. The other day I heard myself say, “Hey Avery, want to drive around and eat cookies while the brothers fall asleep in the car?”

Um, yes.

The hardest question to answer: Can I help? Thank you to everyone who has asked. Food gifts are awesome. They allow me to admire my babies and not just care for them. Otherwise, there is a pandemic, and having adults visitors requires more mature conversation than I usually have to give. If you come around I will inevitably end up dealng with my train-wreck pile of kids; only now with an audience. Not fun.

Help can be confusing even from my husband. M is a fantastic doer. He brings groceries, cooks, cleans, and drives Avery around. But he doesn’t do this parenting thing where his time (all day, every day) is overtaken by the needs of others. He doesn’t do anti-productivity well.

When I’m alone I do what needs to be done, and I don’t think about it. But when M is around, I compare my day to his and notice that my life is insane. I resent him when he makes a phone call or eats his entire breakfast. I feel jealous when he clips his toenails. Then, I feel crazy.

I stopped feeling crazy, however, one day when I got specific with him about how to help with the kids. “Feel free to clip anyone’s nails, anytime,” I said. “I have 40 just between the boys and I can’t keep up.”

“Plus your own,” he said. “That makes 60.”

“Avery makes 60,” I said. “Mine make 80.”

Not crazy.

*

How am I? Surprisingly good because Avery goes to preschool five mornings a week. Still, strategic mommery must roll continuously through the background or I get my wrist slapped. For example, I am about to wake the brothers and give them their circus (feed/diaper change) before we pick Avery up from school. Hopefully the babies fall asleep on the ride home so I can put Avery down for a nap without them crying when we get back. If they don’t fall asleep, I got nothin.

I grit my teeth from 4 to 6 p.m. every night, but at least it’s predictable. We eat dinner (out of bowls) as early as possible. At six I plug Avery in to a DVD while the brothers get their circus and are put down for the night. They’re asleep by seven. Then I clean the kitchen, feed the dog, and put Avery to bed. It’s a full shift. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.

I don’t run a tight ship; more like a buoyed Land Rover set adrift. It’s not easy, but it is easier than I thought it would be in that it is possible. Please do not drop by unannounced.

Once the brothers are asleep, Avery and I have a lovely ritual. She dons a baby-blanket cape fastened at the neck with a rubber band. We choose three books and fly out of the front door and run around to the sliding glass door. Yes, we could just go out that way but that is beside the point.

Outside of the glass door there is a cracked and weathered rocking chair; something I bought on impulse a few days before Avery was born but never used. It landed on this porch where it waited three years to become a well-loved fixture of our home.

We wrap ourselves in blankets and read and watch the stars come out.

“There’s Venus!” Avery says.

It’s actually Sirius; the dog star. But I mistook it for the planet Venus on our first night out, and I can’t bring myself to tell her differently.

“There it is,” say.

I try so hard to create special moments for my kids; to live the dream I imagined family life would be. Even now, in all of this sweetness, Avery can’t stop wiggling and jabs me repeatedly with her elbows.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Good,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

I’m ready for a new mantra. I’m moving out of the eye of the storm and into the ocean. What’s the difference between the hurricane’s eye and the ocean? The eye builds a wall to protect itself from what is outside: The ocean is a container. It holds everything and takes nothing personally.

Be the ocean.

As the eye I waited for the unpleasant things to shift. As ocean, I am the environment my family drifts in. Moments come, and moments go. Even if the surface is ruffled, I can sometimes manage to keep things calm underneath. The eye holds it’s breath: The ocean, breathes.

***

Letting go

Since I was away from Southeast Alaska for the summer I am still able to enjoy the rainy weather. On most days I take the babies on a walk right after I drop Avery off at school, but today is torrential; we will stay in.

I set the brothers up in front of the fire hoping they will fall asleep in their bouncy chairs if I steam them slightly.

I’m happy to be at home with kids again; even if I am limited to breakfast cereals that benefit from a lot of soaking. The brothers are almost four months old. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and how little time has passed.

So much is different about this round of babies. I wore Avery constantly but I’m forever setting the brothers down; trying to rest my back or catch a minute.

When Eirik is fed and dry but not quite tired I can set him up with a game of red bird (stare and smile at the red bird) or ceiling fan (stare and smile at the ceiling fan). Left to himself in the bouncy chair, Toren just screams.

Toren prefers a playmate and often skips his afternoon nap to get one-on-one time with mom. We play a game called, Hello! Hi! I start by saying, “Hello! Hi!” and he returns my sounds and smiles. We also like A-Goo! (similar rules). Sometimes he likes to mix it up: “A-WOOO!”

*

They are asleep. I cook and do exercises to draw my abdominal muscles back together. I write every day but I rarely post. My thoughts link to everything and nothing and fill my drafts folder with frazzled half-sentences. Somewhere in here there is a theme…

It has been a hard year, this 2020. Political strife in my country and a pandemic. Some doors are closed right now: Productivity. Time with friends. Travel. But doors are also opening.

A woman in the white house.

What is this year driving me toward? I move into marriage and family. Into patience. Into risk and fearlessness. Into becoming more and more myself. Into this work that is always just beginning.

*

I belong to a generation of women who grew up with the impression that we could do it all: kids and career. I have not quite found that to be true. It is at least impractical to do both at the same time.

I have a theory that, if we dig deep, what we first “wanted to be when we grew up” manifests in adulthood. I spent my free time in elementary school writing and illustrating stories and making covers from wallpaper scraps. I wanted to be an artist.

For a few adult winters, back before kids, I spent rainy days like this playing guitar and writing essays; being time rich. I thought a winter was all I needed to record an album or write a novel. I learned that good art isn’t made by people sitting around with a whole bunch of time.

When I was home with Avery, unsatisfied career goals rolled around in my brain like cobbles in a colander. The less I worked the wilder they got: I’d like to publish a book. Or become a state senator. Either. I’m just doing all of this laundry for now.

I once told M about this problem. “Turn it over,” he said. “Dump it out.”

Good thing someone in the family knows how to run a colander.

*

I fall into this myth that one day I will make some thing and feel successful, but creativity is not something we arrive into. It is an infinite and iterative process.

I spend all day narrating in my head and find shards of time to write things down. The squeeze of family life limits me but also inspires me. I have plenty of material. Keep going. Life is stressful enough without being a writer who doesn’t write.

I keep a file called “scraps” for bits of text that don’t make the cut into a final post. I found this from when Avery was small: After more than a decade of wanting baby A, I have her now. But there’s no relief from wanting because my mind stuffs that space full of unrealistic goals…

In this, the twins have been freeing. With one baby my ambitions were just out of arms reach. Now they are so far gone I’d have to be out of my mind to stay bogged down by them. And with three kids I’m so busy that I no longer question my value in my family. Mama is a key player.

Family is not a sure bet either; but at least these people exist outside of my heart and imagination. I will make things because I like to but I won’t feel bad about the things I haven’t made anymore. I am letting go.

*

Going home

All of my babies are sleeping and so too should I be. Instead I am wondering why we let this apartment run out of chocolate and eating coconut cream straight from the can. Hopefully, I will also write a little.

Yesterday my husband and I made it, be-masked, through the airport with one preschooler, two infants, and nine items of luggage; including three giant totes, three carseats, a moving box, a duffel, and an arthritic dog in kennel. The Alaska airlines agent kindly let Talus fly on an expired vet certificate (the date on which I attempted to forge). Things could’ve gone worse.

One leg of travel down, one more to go. We will spend three nights in our Juneau apartment and then hop a ferry home to our little town in the rainforest. The interim holds two days of doctors, dentists, and the DMV. With all of my babies in tow, I will catch up on everything I put off since the beginning of COVID-19 and begin to learn what my new life holds.

It is my first night and day of parenting without grandma, grandpa, auntie, and cousins to help things flow smoothly. Avery and my husband are closed off behind a curtain in the bedroom we’ve always shared. I sleep on our fold-out couch in the living room with the boys next to me in a pack and play. Apologies to every guest who has ever slept on this thing. You are all very, very good sports.

This rental is small, and if one person in our family is awake then everyone is pretty much awake. We are up early.

After the morning circus of nursing and diaper changes I haul the boys in their carseats up sixty stairs to our parked car. The walkway is too narrow for me to take it head on so I do a side-winding shuffle with the carseats bump-bump- bumping all the way up. While I’m away Avery puts on her clothes, rain suit, and boots as instructed and is ready to go when I come back down. Love this girl.

I’ve had enough support that much of #twinlife + #covidlife remains to be figured out. What I know, is that I will wear this ergo baby carrier from sun-up to sundown.I need a safe place to set a baby available at all times. My backpack must hold water, snacks, diapers, clothing changes, and raingear and must never be more than an arms reach away. Also, it is possible to do almost anything one-handed.

Today, I wrack my brain for a fun thing to do and end up taking everyone to Whale Beach Park. I still haven’t figured out the attachments for my double stroller, or how to take everyone for a walk, but this place is compact enough that Avery can bike around on the concrete pad, and I can wear one baby while the other baby sleeps in the car. I’m shooting for possible, not optimal.

Things I don’t yet understand include what to do with Avery on rainy days, what to ask for when neighbors offer help, and how to make a phone call without everyone falling apart. September will be a month for learning.

*

The lamb and the lion

Like a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toren Ambrose was born on July 29, 2020 with his eyes open, giving the impression of one who is patient, thoughtful, and cautiously optimistic. His water had been broken ten hours prior and, as the finale to a long induction and longer pregnancy, he waited in the birth canal for two hours before my epidural faded enough for me to push him out.

Twenty minutes later, Eirik Axel came into the world red-faced and roaring. It was his privilege to wait out the entire labor with his water still in-tact. I offered him a breast before he was cleaned off or the cord was cut, and he took it.

I wouldn’t hear Toren cry for a week. At 6 lbs 5 oz, he was a full pound-and-a-half smaller than his brother. Big for a twin, it was two hours before a nurse noticed that he was small for a full-term baby and sent him to NICU.

Eirik and I were moved upstairs to the mother-baby recovery ward. At 7 lbs 9 oz, he was larger than our singleton and came with all of the upgrades: chubby cheeks, a full head of hair, eyelashes. I spent the next two sleepless days nursing him, charmed by him.

I made the trip down to see Toren for about 90 minutes at the beginning of each day and again at the end. A major design flaw of this hospital is that NICU is too far from mother-baby for a woman who has just given birth to walk there. On the first day a nurse pushed me down in a wheelchair. The next day I went on my own, pushing the wheelchair like a walker.

Toren had an IV with a glucose drip and later a feeding tube by which a nurse put 50 mL of milk through his nose and into his stomach every three hours. I held him and tried not to upset his tubes and wires. When offered the breast, he would smile at my nipple and fall asleep with it in his eye.

I did not spend enough time with Toren in those first days. The constant revolving door of nurses and doctors kept me busy upstairs. I was too hungry to be gone from my room (access to food delivery) for very long. And caring for my lion, being tangibly needed by him, felt more pressing than the needs of my lamb. My main expression of love for Toren in those first days was pumping. In training my body to provide milk for two babies instead of one, I pumped my breasts eight times a day. Whenever I fed Eirik, I pumped for Toren.

My husband, M, became the short-term NICU super-dad. He attended Toren’s feedings and came up with goals for him. He got to know the nurses and talked with them about how to get Toren out of there.

Eirik and I were discharged on a Friday. After three sleepless nights in the hospital, our family decided to go home to our daughter and a real bed rather than room in with Toren on a fold-out couch. Covid-19 restrictions meant that Eirik would not be allowed to return to the hospital once we left. M would likely continue on as Toren’s primary parent until his discharge. We didn’t think it would take very long.

Our family visited the NICU on our way out to tell him goodbye. We kept it short. It was evening, and I pretended we were going back up to our room to sleep instead of driving to a home 20 minutes away. Love you, Toren. See you in the morning.

Walking out of the hospital with one twin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. M stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to a nurse while I pushed the cart of our belongings out to the curb. Eirik, in his carseat, was perched on top.

As I walked through the lobby, stranger after stranger turned a masked face up to offer me heart-felt congratulations. This was not your standard new baby well-wishing: At one point they almost broke into spontaneous applause. I felt sad, private, and confused by the happy attention. Finally I realized: I was leaving NICU with a baby. It’s kind of a big deal. How could I tell them? This is not what you think it is.

The next day Toren had a nurse named Steve who was our game changer. ”This kid doesn’t belong in NICU,” he told my husband. Steve pulled the feeding tube and got Toren’s required feedings reduced to 30 mL every three hours. As long as Toren could keep up with those quantities, maybe he could go. M sat with Toren swaddled against his arm and patiently bottle-fed him. Steve worked down the NICU discharge checklist; including having Toren sit for 90 minutes in a carseat. Thanks, Steve.

In the morning a doctor called and said we could come get our boy. He was five days old. By day 10 he was entirely breast fed. By day 14 he had gained more weight than Eirik. Today is day 50 and you would never know he had a rough start at all. How did the birth go? you ask. Everything went great.

*

Still waiting

We’re getting a lot of calls on the home front: “What’s the news?” “Any action?”

Nope. Still pregnant.

Early on it seemed like everyone in my family had a bet to place: Birthdates were chosen to reflect favorite numbers, national holidays, and lunar phases. All of those dates have come and gone.

Twins have a tendency to come early, and everything in my third trimester gave me Braxton Hicks contractions. A month ago I stopped going for walks, sweeping floors, and lifting my 30-lb daughter and took to doing a lot of back-porch sittin’. My tan this summer rivals the one I had in the 1999 when I was fresh out of high school and working as a camp counselor. The comments made by my nurses about it are not meant as compliments, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the longest time I celebrated every week that the babies stayed inside. Thirty-three…. thirty-four…. thirty-five…. I crested up to the top of the gestational curve with cramping and diarrhea at 36 weeks and felt sure they were on their way. I became unable to tolerate heat, noise, or human company. All I wanted was to sit alone in the darkened basement and watch Netflix: A sure sign of impending labor.

Then, un-ceremoniously, all pre-labor symptoms quit. Two uneventful weeks have since passed; the only change being that my once large but taught belly has started to droop like an anemone left hanging too long at low tide.

Twins are funny; they are premature right up until they are overdue. The modern standard is to induce during week 37 when babies are barely full term but before complications arise. Fortunately, the only complication I have is my feet, which have swelled to resemble a mantee’s flippers:

I find myself in territory that twin moms haven’t encountered for thirty years: Week 38 and counting. We’ve rounded over the top of the normal curve and are headed downward into highly unusual. My doctor is keeping a close eye on these babies with twice weekly heart rate monitoring (see above photo). Everyone is doing great.

So far I’ve fought hard to skip induction in favor of natural labor. I also don’t want to screw up their astrology: Cancer or Leo, kids? Which will it be?

*

Threenager

Happy Birthday A! We have successfully run the toddler gauntlet, from ages 12 to 36 months, where I had no idea what I was doing! Congratulations to us!

A and I have been back together for a few months now – time I wouldn’t have had but for Covid-19. I’m surprised at how much she has grown since last summer and how much learning slipped by without my noticing despite evenings and weekends together.

What kind of things? She has the sweetest new spray of freckles across her nose. Christopher Robin is her hero. She knows all the words to Old MacDonald and sings it while riding on the tractor. She loves to play baby animals; which translates into games of fetch in the back yard and her saying, “I love you, mama salmon,” whenever she’s in the kiddie pool. She invites us parents on trips “up north to see the polar bears” and made me a paper pilot’s license so I could fly us there.

Her language skills have blown up since March; though correct use of pronouns still eludes her. New vocabulary includes “moss”, “twig”, “chic-a-dee-dee-dee”, DVD-dee-dee”, “cool”, and “butt-crack.” I claim full responsibility for all of it. You win some; you lose some.

This little girl’s spatial-mechanical awareness puts me to shame. She knows where we are when we drive around the city as well as I do (Going to the airport, mama? To the library? The doctor?) She may already know how traffic patterns flow at intersections and how to differentiate right from left.

She has taken to calling me by my first name. “Heidi?” she asked on a recent romp around the yard. “How does water get into our house?” I take her over to the cistern and she begs me to check the level. When I tell her dad usually does that job she retrieves the dip stick from wherever it’s kept and shows me how. Then she moves on to questions about electricity and plumbing (“Where does my poop go?”). Finally, she asks me to explain the internet. Mama doesn’t know, child.

A is an excellent adventurer. There are no rules in our family about getting wet or muddy; only that your being cold cannot ruin the fun or cause us to turn around early (at least not very often).

I will forever remember this summer as the one where A wore a bike helmet and little else. Three weeks ago she tried a balance bike and declared it defective. “No pedals on this thing?” she asked. “Just use your feet?” Now she’s glued to it; seeking ramps and making hairpin turns. She drags it, barefoot, into the backyard where she can try downhills.

She is my treasure, and I tell her so on a daily basis. On a recent foray we wander down a “short” path I have not been on for quite some time. I brought no phone (no reception), water, or provisions save for a granola bar and a fruit leather tucked inside of my bra strap (reason #286 why stretchy pants need pockets!)

Low-slung alders criss-cross the path; bent by last winter’s heavy snowfall from left to right across the lines of straighter, darker trees. We duck under, climb over, and go around singing, “going on a bear hunt” all the while. A swings from their branches and rides them like horses; a satisfying reminder of my childhood.

At the end of the trail a kingfisher calls Kick-kick-a-kee! and dives into the river. We sit on a bench and eat our snack. My daughter discovers, and falls in love with, her first tire swing (Higher higher!). Finally, we turn and head for home.

Hours have passed. By time the truck comes into view, my child is buck naked, dehydrated, hungry, scratched and mosquito-bitten. She still doesn’t want to leave. “Thanks for the great adventure, A,” I say. “I had fun with you today.”

“Thanks, Heidi,” she says. “You’re my treasure too.”

*

Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

***

Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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My strong-willed child (part 1)

Parenting fantasies start from the gold dust of dreams. They are shaped by personal values and rooted in experiences from our own childhoods. Before we become parents we imagine ourselves exuding the perfect ratio of love, creativity, and authority to yield a happy, healthy, and respectful child. Around the time our kids become independent mobile units though, these ideas start to leak like a sieve.

This post goes out to my friend E, who has witnessed my steep parenting learning curve, and recently sent this text about her one-year-old: “My son needs some sort of discipline,” she writes. “He knows the word no and he doesn’t give a f@%$. He really doesn’t. What do I do with that?”

Obedient children are lovely to be around. I’d like to have one, but you have to prioritize characteristics to cultivate in your kids according to what is available. There’s not infinite room in the garden; so you might not be able to grow petunias and begonias.

Lately I have become curious about why obedience became the value to cultivate in children above all other values. Obedience is desirable as a practical skill. It keeps kids safe, well-mannered, and cooperative. It is also boring and stifling.

I was raised to be obedient. “Be good,” my dad always said as we parted ways, and I knew what was meant. When I was a kid all it took was the threat of a spanking; the forward leaning, wide-eyed lear of a grandfather; the shrill or else of my mother to straighten me up. That was all I needed to act right. Threats were many; consequences were few.

Kids today don’t give a shit about empty threats. “Or else what, ma?” they want to know. I don’t know what has changed in the past 35 years, but parenting is different now. “Different pollens in the air,” says my friend M.

In his book Free to Learn, author Peter Gray summarizes this system as beginning with the agricultural age when hierarchies of dominance and submission became rules to live by. “Just as we train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do,” he writes, “we train children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that regardless of whether the horse or child wants such training, or benefits from it as an individual. Training requires suppression of the trainees will; it requires a concept of disciplining others that was foreign to hunter-gatherers.”

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I got the exact wild, brave, curious daughter I always wanted. The surprise is how little control I have over her. She is, what is called, a strong-willed child.

Strong-willed children require a complete rearrangement of how we thought parenting would go: Instead of being strict and consistent, I have needed to become flexible and empathetic. Overall, I have also become less angry, anxious, and close-minded. Parenting these kids can be a great thing if you let it be; or you can stick to your former notions of authority and die trying.

A’s lack of obedience is most difficult when safety is concerned. Rather than offering a constant “Be careful!” chorus as the soundtrack to her young life, I watch for moments when she becomes distracted. “Focus,” I say, or “Do you feel safe?” Yes, I have caught her in mid-air as she dropped off of the monkey bars. On another occasion she hit the ground but was totally fine. “We’re training for the Olympics,” I tell bystanders.

I have had to get very specific with myself about what I am protecting my daughter from. If the risk does not include loss of life or limb (or an emergency room bill), and if she will most likely keep her face, then I say nothing. Proceed, my child, and learn.

I refrain from bringing up her mortality because I don’t want her athleticism curbed by of adult fears. Nor do I want her looking to others to determine what level of risk is acceptable. She should learn to gauge safety and threat for herself.

My ideas, of course, don’t always work. Yesterday my mom, A, and I walked the boardwalk along a neighborhood duck pond. Everything is going swimmingly until A starts wondering about the snacks left locked inside the car, and she takes off for the parking lot at a full sprint.

“Stop!” I shout. “Mama says stop!” But she gives not a damn and is soon out of earshot. My mom looks at me, waddling through the last month of my twin pregnancy, then looks ahead to the blur of our charge racing away. “I can’t catch her,” I shrug. “She probably wont die.”

Good old grandma runs after her.

I know this makes me sound terribly passive. A has taught me to examine all situations through the lens of the serenity prayer and realize there many moments with her in which I have very little say. I have come to value keeping my cool over maintaining control because it’s something I can actually do.

When A returns, there is no reprimand, no consequence, no warning, or threat. There is an explanation. “When mama says stop, you stop,” I say. “When you run far away I worry that you’ll be hit by a car. And I worry you might meet a bear or a person feeling ‘no-no’ and mama won’t be there to take care of you.”

The word, “discipline,” means “to teach.” For the rest of this day and the next, we practice stop and go with a game like red-light, green-light. I use our secret call “Coo-eee!” to beckon her back to my side, and she comes running.

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Parenting a strong-willed child cannot be about obedience and control because you will lose too many battles. Your relationship must hinge upon something else or you will also lose the war. The last thing any of us wants is to suffer through these childhoods, only to be hated by our kids as adults.

I have yelled. I have spanked. None of it changed my daughter’s behavior one iota and I felt terrible afterwards. When I am angry she shuts down or ignores me. She does not do as I wish, and no ‘parenting’ is accomplished. In short, nothing that was supposed to work actually works. The only thing she responds to, is love.

The antithesis to parenting with an iron fist is to teach a child self regulation. If A doesn’t go to bed when I tell her to then she must learn to rest when she is tired. If she won’t wear the clothes I offer her then she must learn to dress appropriately for the weather and bring an extra layer: I will not procure a sweater from some bag when she gets cold.

In response to our difficulties, I have become more creative about how I talk to my daughter. Every time we open our mouth’s to speak we choose a vessel, a mood, and a posture to carry our words. Instead of demanding deference, I have learned to make a request, reference a rule, convey an observation, explain how I feel, or ask a question. I can issue a statement, give a directive, redirect, distract, or enforce a consequence. I can get physical and overpower my child or find words to guide her by. I can evoke equality, superiority, or submission. Words can bring good humor, sarcasm, anger, or careful intention. In almost any situation I can go silly, tender, or angry. I can bargain, be vague, or be indecisive. I can do nothing. I can encourage dependence and obedience to the status quo or free-thinking, independence, and perseverance.

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I have given up control for the sake of building a great relationship with my daughter. Yes, the hectocity level is high. I make myself feel better by worrying about what happens when obedient children grow up. Do they rebel hard-core as teens? Struggle to make even the smallest decisions? Spend their lives trying to please others? Lose sight of who they really are?

The teen years around our house will require some patience; but I’m not worried. Perhaps a curfew will hold no power over A. If that’s the case, I will have to get specific with my daughter around drunk driving, intimate relationships, and other taboos of being out after midnight. We will define our family boundaries together (see clause on parenting fantasies, above). With open conversation and understanding, I hope to know where my daughter is and what she is up to. With enough love and mutual trust, maybe she’ll call me first when she’s in a bind or needs a ride. A kid who spent her whole life falling off the straight and narrow and getting busted doesn’t do that.

Teaching self regulation takes a lot of patience and effort up front, but it seems so worth it. Also, I see no other option. This is working. What can I say? She is who she is. If there is anyway to change her, I haven’t found it. That’s probably a good thing.

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Part two of this post is a list of Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids and references for further exploration.

Toddler Art

Lines and shadows

Lately I have enjoyed daily home art installations courtesy of my daughter A. She works mainly in sculpture since she doesn’t get crayons without supervision.

The shortest distance between two points

A’s work reflects an awareness of balance and a willingness to consider various uses of and meanings behind everyday objects. These sculptures are a physical study of the three repeated questions we cycle through every day: “What’s this?”, “What doos?”, and “Why?”

Dad doesn’t need to know

She is also working with origin stories, as in: “Where cheese come from?” Followed by, “Where cows come from?” and then, “Where mama cows come from?”

And: “What birds eat?” “What spiders eat?” “What bugs eat?” “What leaves eat?” “What water eats?”

Weird geometry

Lineage can be traced – must be traced – for just about anything. Once is not enough to satisfy. The same questions come around and around again like a carousel carrying a limited number of painted ponies.

Unicorn sleeping on a dish towel

I read something about it being a trust-building exercise. Maybe so; or maybe she asks again and again because she’s wondering, what else does it do? Maybe a lifetime of learning has set me up with limited perceptions. Maybe I should be more open minded; re-examine the world with new eyes. Certainly, I appreciate her perspective.