Difficult Is as Difficult Does

Is there any such thing as an un-difficult child?

I have always thought my 6-year-old son to be a “difficult” child — stubborn, active, rebellious, testing. It’s becoming clear that he’s most difficult for me. The babysitter seldom complains. His teacher says he’s a delight.

I once asked a group of 200 parents, “How many of you have a difficult child?” More than 90% raised their hands. I then asked, “If nearly all of you believe you have a difficult child, what does that say about children in general?”

Certainly no two children can be raised exactly the same. By nature, or temperament, some are far more challenging than others. But it’s becoming too easy to call children difficult. So much has been written about the strong-willed child, the difficult child and the hyperactive child that we’ve lost understanding and tolerance for the way children really are. Most can be difficult, especially when given the opportunity. Most can act feisty, unruly and resist discipline. Such is the nature of a being that needs years of socialization to mature.

That your son is difficult for you is not in question. You’ve said he is. What is in question is whether he is by nature difficult or not. I suspect not, since he seems to be in good control of whom he challenges and whom he does not.

Because your son targets you more than anybody else does not mean you’re a bad parent. It means he is familiar enough with your personality and discipline to know how hard to push, when and for how long. Indeed, most children are most difficult for their parents. They know our weak spots and they feel most secure with us, so they give us their worst.

One danger in calling a child difficult is that it implies the “problem” lies within him. In the extreme, the parent feels the helpless victim cursed to live with a little demon no one on earth could handle. In all but the rarest of situations, good parenting will overcome a difficult nature.

Recently, I saw a television segment about a “difficult” 5-year-old. Truly he acted so. His behavior was nasty and demanding. An expert tagged this little guy “moderately difficult.” The parents — who nagged, threatened and over-reasoned but did little actual disciplining — felt they just got a “bad seed.” To underscore this, the show pointed to a younger sister who posed few discipline problems. To me, she seemed more the exception among children than her brother, especially given that Mom and Dad didn’t discipline either one. Brother took advantage of the situation while sister didn’t, yet.

The expert gave the parents some basic discipline guidelines: Quit talking so much. Set up some rules. Enforce them with consequences. When interviewed five weeks later, they called their son a “sweet, normal little boy.” There was a contradiction. If their son was truly temperamentally difficult, then only a month of improved discipline wouldn’t have brought about such a drastic change. If he was not, then the trouble lay in the discipline — which, when strengthened, led fairly quickly to a more enjoyable child.

In fact, whether or not your son is a difficult child doesn’t need an answer. If he is, you are his mother and must teach him how to get along in this world. If he isn’t, you are his mother and must teach him how to get along in this world.

Being too quick to pronounce “problem child,” as many experts are, makes parents question their own legitimate right to expect nonproblem behavior. Most critically, it obscures the real issue: In matters of morals and character, how we raise a child is still more influential than his nature.

Dr. Ray Guarendi’s

latest book is Adoption:

Choosing It, Living It, Loving It. He’s online at DrRay.com.