“She’s so well-behaved!” swooned the other mothers in the office after all it took was a look from me and a barely decipherable nod to signal to my toddler that she shouldn’t touch the expensive computer.
“I almost forgot she was here!” they exclaimed after I thanked them for watching her while I was in a meeting.
Around the time she turned two, I brought my daughter into work the few times we weren’t able to secure childcare. At the time, I was grateful to have several colleagues who were mothers and an understanding boss who’d allow this. It didn’t hurt that I had an angel child who rarely created waves.
Please understand: I’m not gloating.
In looking back at our parenting styles, I really don’t think my husband and I did anything intentionally to create this obedient, calm soul. Don’t get me wrong … back then I think we thought we were just exemplary parents who were able to set the “right” boundaries and say the “right” things. We annoyingly and regularly patted ourselves on the back for raising such a good girl. Barf.
But, while we watched her grow, we became increasingly unsure we were setting the right foundation.
During what were supposed to be the nightmare toddler years — based on all the stories I had heard from mom friends and strangers on the internet — I could count on one hand the number of times our daughter had had a tantrum or acted out. During that same time, however, we found ourselves comforting her as she cried hysterically when much younger babies would steal her toys, or at birthday parties when she wouldn’t get even one piece of candy from the piñata. She was usually too preoccupied with waiting her turn and being a good sharer as the other kids ran wildly under the sugar shower.
I realized the absence of “acting out” (e.g. being a good girl) and the pain that came with shrinking herself to allow space for everyone else were inescapably linked.
It was right around the time of these not-so-terrible twos and threes that my husband and I had both solidly decided being a good girl wasn’t as beneficial to her and her development as it really was just conducive to an efficient family life for us. So, we started to encourage as much wild child in her as possible.
Let me be clear: my daughter was born calm. She was born kind. She was born gentle. From a very early age she loved the simple pleasure of playing quietly on her own, in her own little world. Just like her mama, she responded at lightning speed to positive reinforcement, so listening to adults came easily when it was served with a side of praise. There is nothing wrong with any of this and the last thing we wanted to do was change who she is. But it was clear my husband and I had modeled to her, all of her short little life, that being the good girl was the ultimate goal, and we knew we had to work hard to reverse course.
But, wait… what’s wrong with being a good girl, you ask?
Where to begin?!
Good girls often grow into the kind of women who are to be seen, not heard.
Good girls spend their lives following the rules, only to be completely blindsided by things like heartache, loss, and turmoil. No amount of rule-following will produce a perfectly rewarded life.
Good girls put others’ needs before their own until they cannot remember what they even want or need themselves.
I know this intimately because I was raised as a good girl. My “goodness” was convenient for adults and caregivers when I was a child; and the praise and attention I got for being good was like a drug. My “goodness” gave me a false sense of security that somehow if I followed the rules, I would be happy. My “goodness” also left me confused and defeated when, by the time I was 33, I had lost both of my parents too soon and felt cheated and hopeless. Hadn’t I done everything “right?” Why was this happening to me?
When life gives you the calm, quiet child, raising the “good girl” or “good boy” is easy. It was a challenge for my husband and me to stretch beyond what we had been ingrained in us, to eventually provide a safe haven for our daughter to stand on her own two feet.
To be wild.
We started small, but have continued to foster this as she grows.
At first, we gave her language to use on the playground so her first instinct wouldn’t be to shrink to those around her. (“NO!” “I don’t like that! STOP!”)
We gave her explicit permission and encouragement to yell and run and jump and be out of control; something we never expressly prohibited, but we admittedly always praised her quiet behaviors over her playful ones.
We stopped interjecting immediately at every small tumble, every time she touched something she probably wasn’t supposed to, every time she hesitated to share.
Without the fear of her behavior immediately being corrected, we saw her blossom. We still had talks with her if she was being over-the-top rude, or explained the “why” behind certain restrictions, but we no longer let the grownups set the tone. We finally allowed her to take up space in her surroundings.
This translated into standing up for herself and thinking critically about the rules being set, instead of just following them blindly. She was trusting herself for the first time and our job became more about giving her the tools to figure out situations on her own rather than hand feeding her solutions.
She’s now a bright and confident seven-year-old. Her natural tendency remains to be more calm-and-quiet than chaotic-and-carefree, but there has been a clear shift.
Sometimes when life gets stressful, we revert back to some of the parenting that produces a “good” kid – because it really is easier when a little human just follows all the rules on the first try. But the intention is to correct our own mistakes by allowing her to make her own.
Every time our daughter tests her boundaries it’s a challenge for me to find the balance between jumping for joy at her rebellion, getting frustrated, and still being a guiding light to help her make sense of this world. Because in the end, that’s all the wild child in everyone is doing each time we color outside of the metaphorical lines of life: simply trying to figure it all out.
I have friends who would readily describe their own children as naturally wild. I see them struggle as they are exhausted at the end of each day trying to keep up. They’ve vented to me about how embarrassed and tired they are of apologizing for their children on the playground, in restaurants, or at parties.
I also see the pride they feel for their self-assured little ones. I see how being allowed the freedom to color outside the lines is giving their children invaluable life lessons which will eventually develop confident adults.
I’m here to tell all of the wild child moms of the world that I’m looking to you as my example.
I’m taking notes, and trying to continue to foster the wild in my child.
I see the fiery independence you are nurturing. I see how you sometimes sacrifice quiet and order for true personal development in your children. Your wild child is helping teach my daughter how to hold her own and be her unique and beautiful self. I want to provide more of that in our family, and have been working the past several years to consciously do just that.
Looking back, I know I shouldn’t have been so attracted by the prospect of raising the good girl. I am now trying to simply raise my girl, and encourage her to take up as much space in this world as she possibly can.