I am a willful person. I have always been willful. I was born that way. Some look at willfulness as a bad thing. Willful people have been described as “type A”, control freaks and hard to be around. Some very willful people have done serious damage to the world in our history. I am sure Adolf Hitler was willful. And in his case, it would be justified to call him a control freak (and many other things).
But there is another side to willfulness. Will may have almost destroyed the world, but it has also been responsible for saving the world. Will does not have to manifest as violent and controlling. Will can also mean willingness. It can manifest as a desire to do something important no matter what gets in the way. I am sure that Martin Luther King was willful … thank goodness.
As with everything, this good and bad side of willfulness has smacked me in the face as a parent. I have been blessed with a willful son. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that every child has a willful side. My daughter has it. She can be very clear about what she wants. But I believe it is on a continuum, and my son, like me, shows a particularly strong propensity for it. Two people in one house with strong wills can create a nuclear war if one (let’s say the adult) doesn’t figure out how to let go on occasion.
When my son was very young, I was at the beginning stages of my trauma recovery. To me, my ability to control my surroundings was critical to my survival because I was still living in my childhood. The battle of wills began with food and scheduling. These were the first two areas that my son was able to exert his control.
Dinners were not a fun experience. He just wasn’t eating it. And I wasn’t having it. He threw tantrums. I threw tantrums. And we were all mad. He could sit at the table staring at uneaten food for hours. I was beside myself. I had never met something I could not control … until I met my son. And other than a feeding tube, I could not make him eat what he didn’t want to eat. (No, I did not try a feeding tube.)
My son also mastered the art of walking painfully slow and putting on his shoes at a snail’s pace. This was done at the worst possible times of course. The later we were running, the slower he went. He was in control of our schedule. He knew it. I knew it. I tried everything. I would warn him that we were leaving in five minutes. I would pick him up and carry him. I would nag and nag and nag.
I wanted to scream (and sometimes did). I wanted to throw myself off a bridge. This is not an exaggeration. As a trauma survivor, I thought that my lack of control would result in my own death. I know it seems like a severe reaction, but as I have mentioned, trauma is not logical.
As I have recovered, I have realized the damage that I may have caused. Although I don’t believe it is impossible to reverse, I am certainly dealing with the karmic effects of my initial inability to give in … even a little. Now, I realize that there is a balance (as there is with everything). When I allow him to control the things that don’t matter, he leaves me alone about the things that do matter.
Of course, I have been forced to redefine what matters. If he wants to wear a shirt and pants that don’t match, does it matter? If he wants to put the peanut butter on his bread with a real knife (not of the sharp variety), does it matter? If he wants to read the book upside down, does it matter? Probably not.
These days, dinners are still not great. Not surprisingly, he is a picky eater. And of course, I still want him to eat vegetables. But now, sometimes, I can let him choose which vegetables he eats at dinner. When he says he is not eating them, I don’t get worked up. I don’t give him ultimatums. I don’t threaten. I just try to calmly explain that this is dinner, and it is important that he eat something for dinner that is healthy.
When it comes to the schedule, I still nag. But I have started taking more responsibility for my part in our scheduling difficulties. I give better warnings. I tell my kids it is my fault we are running late, instead of making it their fault. I try to leave early when possible. I ask for their help instead of trying to do it all myself. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better.
So one day, my son will save the world. Until that day, it is my job to teach him how to use his willfulness in a productive, non-controlling manner. And as I have learned the hard way, I have to teach him by showing him. I can’t just tell him. I hate that about parenting. If I want my children to be better, I have to be better. Life is sneaky that way.