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Portrait of a happy girl

Today I met with my publisher at We talked about lots of things, especially social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which I had avoided, but I am now taking part in, reluctantly, sometimes enjoying them. (Want to receive my notifications on Facebook? See “fan me on facebook”: below, right side.)

Happy girl

And then Parmalee asked the $100 question: So what’s up with your daughter?

You can peruse my past posts to know why she was asking. I have been wondering what to write, and then a friend, a mom in her homeschool program, gave me the topic.

She took me aside at a fieldtrip and said, “I am amazed at how your daughter has matured.”

It was such a welcome thing to do.

Let’s face it: As parents, we spend a lot of time putting out fires. Sometimes, if you have a difficult kid, you have to remind yourself to kiss him on the cheek and say, “You’re wonderful,” or you have to remind yourself to grab her when she comes out of a dance class and say, “You are SO great!”

It’s so easy to focus on the negative, so hard to remember that the positive is What Works.

My daughter is the archetypal Difficult Child. We didn’t have a comfortable diagnosis to fall back on. We couldn’t say, “Boys will be boys!” She doesn’t fit cultural definitions of what a girl is. She has never fit cultural definitions of how a child develops. She is… herself.

Bad, mean, yuck, hit

I started homeschooling her when she was 5 because, frankly, she and kindergarten did not agree on what “fun” is. She was brilliant, funny, creative, energetic, and amazing. At school, she was frustrating, unable to endure group activities, destructive, angry, and completely unwilling to submit to authority.

But she was mine. She was what we got when we got a baby, and we had to love her no matter what.

And here she is today. I’m not going to say: She’s the daughter I always planned on having.

But I am going to say: She’s amazing, creative, energetic, funny, brilliant, and wholly and thoroughly herself. I can’t imagine her as anyone else.

In other words, she’s doing great!

Parents of difficult children out there are starting to pay attention now: What did you do? What’s the magic formula?

If you have a “normal” child (and I admit I don’t know what that is or if it exists), you know that development happens in fits and starts. You think that some new parenting change you made is doing nothing at all, and then one day you realize that the behavior that had been driving you crazy was… gone! Where? Why?


In my daughter’s case, I can pin it on three things, sorta. I won’t swear to this, but this is the formula that seems to be working.

First of all, we were patient. Everyone who worked with her and seemed to “get” her told us the same thing: this is all developmental. She will eventually grow out of it. She is a classic “asynchronous development” kid. You have the usual curve that “normal” kids develop along (more or less… some people would say that this curve is itself a fabrication), and then you have kids like my daughter. We knew she could read by the time she was three, but she didn’t really admit to it till she was about 4 and a half. It took till she was five, however, for her emotional development to make it out of the terrible twos. Everything was all mixed up, and no one could give us a formula to follow to get her past it except patience.

Second, I read various sources that gave me that idea that I had to “set my child up for success.” We spend a lot of time setting our children up for some level of failure: contests, grades, standardized tests. What if we structured their lives so that they saw how successful they could be? How would this change their perspective, and their behavior? I took her out of kindergarten, because despite the fact that I put her in the most loving, kind environment I could find, she was spending a lot of time drawing self-portraits with the word “BAD” scrawled underneath them. Teachers don’t have to say the word bad to make it so. A classroom was not a place that she could succeed at that time.

Third, this summer we made a pretty momentous dietary change. I read about a very small study that indicated a possible link between “hyperactive” behavior in some kids and low ferritin levels. Ferritin is one component of iron in our bodies. We get it exclusively from animal sources: beef, liver, bivalves (clams, mussels). I brought the study in to our MD, and he said, Hm, this is interesting, and agreed to do the test. He called me a few days later. “This is really interesting,” he said. Like most vegetarian kids, her iron came out low-normal in general. But when they separated out ferritin, she came out less than half of normal. This started a new eating program in our house. “Have some salami!” “Eat a burger!” “Don’t you just love this spaghetti sauce with clams in it?” It also started me down the supplements path, something I have resisted.

The result of this three-pronged approach is not magical. We don’t have the ADHD kid on Ritalin: one day a nightmare, the next day malleable and easy-going. This is not what we wanted, frankly. We love her spirit. We love her stick-to-it-iveness. We love her crazy creativity, which society tries to stifle but which will allow her to reach for greatness. But we were tired of the phone calls to come get her. Tired of her not being able to get along with other kids because they were freaked out about her behavior. And tired, just plain tired, of seeing the one-step-forward, two-steps-back momentum of our lives.

These days, I’d say we’re two-steps-forward, one-step-back… or perhaps sideways. Not everything goes according to plan. The day we realize that she’s stopped spitting at us to get our attention, we see that she’s drawn on the wall, something she hasn’t done for years.


But like that mom friend said, there is something different. She’s come down a couple of notches. She’s seeing beyond the whirl of fabulous thoughts in her head. She announced last spring that she wanted to have A Friend. Now she has one, maybe two. She is going to her school program a day and a half a week without Mommy hanging over her. She and I are both getting the breathing room that we needed.

Where does it go from here? Most parents assume it will generally go forward. I’m assuming nothing. But I can surely say that we are all happier and more relaxed. We Have Our Days, as they say. But all families do. We don’t have those conversations anymore, the “how are we going to survive this?” conversations. Not now, at least.

It’s success, but not the sort of success you get when you go up and accept that Oscar or get a promotion to partner at your law firm. It’s a tenuous sort of success, where you wait with baited breath to see what comes next. You hope, you definitely hope, that what comes next is more movement forward, more success, more self-portraits of the happy girl in glasses, “BAD” a thing of the past.

Posted in Health, Parenting, Psychology.

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