The Difficult Child

06.10.11: How to avoid raising a stinker


I’ve just returned from a 3-day wilderness camp in an ancient forest with 30 fifth-graders. We all engaged in the same hikes, ecology lessons, games, skits and meals, but the difference between individual kids camping experiences was extreme. It all came down to personality, parenting and coping skills. Why am I writing about fifth-graders for a pregnancy blog? Because I wish every expectant parent could take a peek a dozen years down the road and see how much influence you will and won’t have on the person your child will become.

Our group could have come from any average urban public school that includes kids (and parents) from a wide variety of races, cultures, countries and economic brackets. Most of the kids have working parents. Many are from divorced and single parent families. Some are first-generation immigrants. One or two have parents in the military and a couple come from foster homes. A few have parents who are high-earning professionals and a few are unemployed. A couple of parents have been in prison. Some kids are being raised by gay parents, grandparents, stepparents or other family members. One child lost her father when she was very young and a couple of kids’ parents have had cancer. One is on the autism spectrum and a one or two have Attention Deficit Disorder. This is a snapshot of the kids who’ll be in your child’s fifth-grade class and the parents you’ll be with as you raise your children.

Each child came to camp with his/her own really unique personality and a handful of coping mechanisms and social skills instilled by his/her parents. Well, most of the kids had those assets. A couple kids seemed to have missed out on that part. Their parents hadn’t taught them the first thing about how to behave outside the den, other than to act like wolves.

I wish I could say that every child is a natural sweetheart, but in every group there are a couple whose behavior and/or personalities are downright nasty, rude, confrontational, belligerent and mean. The stinkers in our camp-group bullied their way into the center of attention in every setting, whether we were hiking in the woods or standing in line for dinner. They threw tantrums, pouted, whined, cried, hit, gossiped and shouted. When an adult had to enforce the rules, these kids were shocked that their right to pitch a fit and get their way was challenged.

The other kids had to put up with this nonsense every day in class, but the handful of chaperone parents were horrified. Their teacher said this was what she had to deal with on a day-to-day basis and it deeply impacted how much teaching she was able to provide the other kids. Were these the disadvantaged kids? The one’s whose parents were sick, dead, deployed, single or absentee? The kids with learning disorders? Nope, our little stinkers came from traditional two-parent homes and had no “official” issues. Their parents knew their children were difficult and tried a few different approaches to tame their inner beasts, but didn’t follow through. They caved in and let their children bully them just like they bullied their classmates. Their parents, notably, weren’t among the chaperones.

We parents talked about how lucky we felt that our kids weren’t like that. We noted the contrasts between our less-than-perfect, but still pretty darn great children and these out-of-control brats. We debated whether it was due to parenting style, circumstances or personality and speculated about what we’d do if they were ours. Then, we counted our blessings that no matter what level of nonsense and chaos our kids put us through, at least they weren’t like those kids.

It’s a parent’s job to help a child embrace who they are, but also to teach them how to behave so they can engage with other people. In the end, we agreed, some kids are just born with difficult personalities and some parents just aren’t very skilled. It’s a real shame when those two subsets match up.

How can you make sure your new baby grows up to be a happy camper? It’s a little different for every family, but the basic tips seem to apply to everyone:

• Slather your baby with unconditional love

• Model how you want your child to behave

• Provide stability without rigidity

• Don’t make them deal with more than they can handle

• Respect that your child is a unique individual

• Provide consistent, thoughtful discipline, but don’t be harsh

• Insist that your child treat you with respect and make it mutual

• Teach them some manners like waiting their turn, being polite and kind and saying please and thank you.

• Help them learn that nothing bad will happen if they’re not first, best, loudest, prettiest, funniest or the star. Being themselves is enough.

• Get professional help if your child is in trouble.

The best parenting advice I ever received was: “Raise your children so you can stand living with them for 21 years.” I would add, “Raise them so other people can live with them too.” Oh and if your child is one of the stinkers – don’t send them to camp unless you’re one of the chaperones.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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