My younger son sometimes got into trouble at school.
Well, both my sons did.
They were boys, right? (Not to sound too sexist, but does anyone really want to dispute the MUCH longer list of boy names on the kindergarten board on any given day as against the girls’?)
But the younger one–I got called in on some doozies. I won’t go into detail, to protect the guilty, but more than once I had a teacher or camp counselor look at me with pity, like this was going to be some wild ride, with this kid, and we would all be lucky if we kept visits to the principal’s office to a minimum.
The problem was: my son was one of the sweetest, most sensitive people I’d ever known, never mind given birth to. He was just a real darling, so sensitive that he would wake up when you opened his bedroom door when he was a baby. We couldn’t go to the movies in theatres because the sound was too loud.
So what was with the bad behavior?
It was a time when all the talk was about “strong-willed children”–those whose personalities would benefit from some pretty strict discipline. Despite my having grown up in the 60s and had my own wild child years, I had, by the time I had children, done a lot of babysitting and knew very well that permissive parenting is a losing proposition, for children and parents. So my kids had gotten plenty of structure and clear directives on what was acceptable behavior and what wasn’t. But I wanted my son to succeed in school. Did he need more discipline?
As so often in my life, I was saved by a book. This has become so routine for me that, now that I have a spiritual life, when I’m struggling with some issue, I just go to the bookstore because I know that I’m going to get the answer there. Some book is going to jump off the shelf at me, even in a completely different section than where you’d think the solution was going to be. Sometimes it’s a novel, sometimes a children’s book, or. occasionally, a straight up self-help.
That is what happened to me when my son was very young, a miracle, my own version of Sortes Sanctorum in which answers come to you by letting a Bible fall open. Just any old book works for me.
The book that came to me then was one called Is Your Child a Strong-Willed Child or a Dreamer?
In this book the author, a therapist, describes two categories of children that look just alike–both defiant, capable of some pretty extraordinary acting out, and generally hard to handle. One, the author says, is the usual oppositional kid who CAN benefit from strong discipline.
The other is a dreamer child, whose behavior comes from finding something intolerable, quite literally, and not having a different way to express it.
Make no mistake, the author of this book is NOT advising permissive parenting, even for the delicate dreamer. On the contrary, this child needs very clear structures, very predictable environments, and absolutely no tolerance of poor behavior. But he or she also needs to have a lot of room for letting people know what is going on and, notably, for redemption.
When I thought back on my own childhood, I thought maybe just maybe I’d sort of kind of maybe been like this. I was temperamental, for sure, and my soft and loving Southern mother loved nothing a whole lot more than she loved spoiling me. My father, on the other hand, distant and disciplinary father of the time that he was, always saw to it that the house fell on my head if I ever got out of line (and he found out about it).
It was only after growing up (which included several trips to the principal’s office and eventually being disowned by my father) and reaching a therapist’s office who saw the dreamer child in me that I began to use my defiance productively–writing books. I found my redemption in writing.
In short, the dreamer child is an artist.
Maybe my own life made it possible for me to understand what my son was up to. And be able to offer him both clear structure and the chance for redemption when he violated it. We had had very, very few trips to the principal’s office.
Can you guess what that son turned out to be?
Yep, a talented artist:
I have had many invitations to cease my defiance, to conform, in my life, and some I have accepted. Many I have defied. Giving up on the artist in me is one invitation that I will defy until I the very end.
Maybe the artists of this world need some defiance to get along in a world that would rather crush us into conformity, for which we are somewhat inconvenient–going around telling the truth even when people don’t want to hear it, or seeing the future, or just plain disrupting things as we do. We are sometimes more opinionated, more intense, more insistent on making things real and important than others are comfortable with. Sometimes things that are acceptable to others are simply intolerable to us and we will make noise. It isn’t always pretty noise, and sometimes people would rather we didn’t.
But we are going to, anyway. And sometimes, in making noise, we change the world for the better. We are, very often, the world’s best chance at changing for the better without violence. We are, in fact, revolutionaries by nature, our defiance used in the service of a better world.
Maybe, just maybe, that defiance isn’t dysfunctional–it’s entirely, death-defyingly reasonable.