Simple encouragement for when you're not like your kid

Were you an inside-the-box kid or outside-the-box one? What about your own children - which are they?

{SALLY'S EXPERIENCE.} In her extraordinarily helpful book Different: the Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom who Loved Him, Sally Clarkson describes a bit about her childhood and upbringing. She describes her willfulness, extraordinary energy, and the tumultuous landscape of her inner life. She writes, "As I grew, I did struggle a lot with feeling like I was too much for most people and unacceptable to them. As a result, I have felt lonely and different most of my life... Often I wondered what was wrong with me... Why couldn't I just be like everyone else?" She was at times secretly despondent as a teen and often "needed to walk miles and miles to work off the adrenaline that days of disillusionment had built up in" her.

Sally has an outside-the-box personality and was different from her family. Her parents "could not fathom what was going on with" her. "'Why do you have so many questions?' they would ask in annoyance. 'Why can't you just be satisfied with life as it is?'" Sally says her parents loved her, but they didn't get her or know how to enter her world and offer real support. These childhood experiences equipped her to parent her outside-the-box son Nathan (with whom she co-wrote the book). She could draw on her own tendencies and history to learn to understand him... and to support him in ways she wished she'd been supported.

Sally's story fascinates me. As I read it, I thought this: Sally being outside-the-box and unlike her family of origin contributed to her childhood difficulties. She brought her experience of difference into mothering a "different" child. Whereas my own experience is exactly the opposite of Sally's.

{MY EXPERIENCE.} I wasn't an outside-the-box child; I was even-tempered, compliant, a pleaser. My inner landscape wasn't especially turbulent, like Sally's was; as a kid I didn't normally feel overwhelmed, alone, or misunderstood. Life felt fairly straightforward for me. Also I was like my family of origin - all inside-the-box kind of folk. My parents are practical, even people, and our household was a pleasant one with emphasis on order, decorum, and diligence. My two siblings and I fell into line fairly easily, and my parents, whose mode of childrearing was authoritarian, didn't find it especially difficult to maintain structure and harmony in our family. 

When I became a mother, I expected things to be pretty similar to my family of origin (without realising I had those expectations.). I employed basically the same, matter-of-fact childrearing techniques my parents used and held the same high standards for decorum. However. Several of the four kids we had in five years have temperaments different from the even-keeled demeanours that characterised the five members of my childhood household. They didn't respond to the tried-and-true, no-nonsense practical methods my husband and I employed - one child in particular. Unlike Sally, I had no personal frame of reference for what might be going on inside them. And while I read and utilised the standard circuit of "strong-willed child" books (Christian and non-Christian), the strategies they offered didn't help for long. There was a tenor of negativity and frustration often present in our household that was foreign to me from my own childhood days, and try as I might I couldn't figure out how to get rid of it. 

I spent a lot of time feeling discouraged and like I was failing as a mother.

I felt guilty and beholden- like I had to apologise to myself, my family (of origin), and the world for not attaining the upbeat, decorum-filled household I was aiming for... despite exerting every possible effort to do so.

I think it could have gone on that way for my kids' whole childhood. I would have been an insecure mess, self-flagellating for my parenting "failings" and resentful of my children for not cooperating (enough) to become the peaceful, cooperative household I was after.

I'll always be grateful to God for shining in truth and pulling me out of that hole. 

{THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER.} It took me several years to process through my faulty thinking and the guilt-baggage from my unrealistic childhood-based expectations.... But I eventually I got it that my scenario for mothering is unlike the scenario from when I was a girl. And what I realised is this: I'm an inside-the-box person raising an outside-the-box kid. And there are challenges associated with raising an outside-the-box kid, no matter who the parent is. The challenges don't make me wrong or bad, and they don't make my kid wrong or bad either. Even the sometimes strained tenor of the household that can come with outside-the-box personalities isn't intrinsically wrong or bad. Sure disruptive behaviours are hard and create real challenge for all members of the household. (Sally does a great job describing this in her book.) Sure, they need to be studied, addressed, and worked on. But they don't in themselves represent failure - on either the parent or the kid's part.

Sally and I come at our experience of mothering outside-the-box kids from different ends of the spectrum, but we share one thing in common: we both know God put us into our roles on purpose. Sally writes, "What if my very outside-the-box personality suited me for the work God created me to do - including being Nathan's mother?" While I'm an inside-the-box person I know the personality I do have - one that includes relational, analytic, and take-the-long-view facets - is the right one for the jobs I've been given in life. Including mothering my outside-the-box kid.

"One of the truths we came to eventually," Sally writes, "was that Nathan was (and indeed all our children were) an essential part of the particular story that God wanted us to live out, the place we could best glorify him." Amen. There's nothing random or haphazard here; the children we've been given to love and to raise are given to us on purpose. And it's OK! We've been given everything we need to do the job faithfully and diligently, even if it's harder than we anticipated, or looks different than we expect (or have previously experienced),  

So take heart, my soul (and yours). The one who formed each cell of my own body, and also of my child's, did it lovingly and purposely. He knows all and covers all, And there's goodness and triumph in the story of our lives and lineages, and in the relationships between parents and children - where they are centered in him and offered to him.


I wrote a full review of Sally and Nathan Clarkson's Different: the Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him; if you want to learn more about it, click here.

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