My daughter is strong-willed. She’s challenging, determined, sassy. 

Some parents have coined this “spirited,” maybe because the other descriptors make them feel like a bad parent, and “spirited” seems like less of a negative reflection on their child, and on themselves.

But I find myself trying to be more honest and blunt: sometimes my daughter is a brat.  Sometimes she’s just plain mean. And I can’t help but question what I’ve done wrong in raising her. 

As she gets older, nearer to school age, my worries turn from how she acts toward and treats me, to how she will act toward and treat friends and classmates. More and more, I witness her interactions with other children and watch her bossy nature emerge. 

Why is her first instinct to be so unfriendly? I wonder, as I intervene to explain that this sort of behavior is unacceptable. “No one will want to play with you if you can’t be nice,” I tell her. 

But while this has largely been my personal observation as her mother, I was recently given a kick to the gut as my daughter was called out by another kid.

We were at the playground and my two girls were playing together on the slide, when another little girl approached to join them. Even from a distance, I could hear my oldest’s attitude right away.

It wasn’t long before the other little girl approached me and asked, “What’s her name?” 

“The baby?” I replied, as I assumed my oldest would have said her own name when asked. 

“No,” the girl said. “The mean girl.”

My stomach dropped.

“What, honey?” I pretended to clarify, although I’d heard her perfectly well.

“That mean girl, over there.” And I didn’t have to even look to know she was pointing at my daughter.

Talk about a sucker punch to the heart. Shocked and embarrassed, I didn’t know how to respond. Tell the girl my daughter’s name and thereby acknowledge that she is in fact “the mean girl?” Correct her by saying, “No, honey, she’s not a mean girl,” when I know that the description was probably justified? 

Instead I managed to say, “I’m sorry if she was being mean,” as I quickly got up to go speak to my daughter. Later, at home, when broaching the subject of kindness (for the millionth time), my daughter really had no explanation for her behavior. 

Hearing her referred to as “the mean girl” was devastating.

“She’ll learn eventually,” my husband said. “At some point she’ll realize that kids won’t want to be around her if she acts like that.”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, it’s hard to watch these interactions happen. It’s hard to watch the judging glances from other parents when my child is exerting her strong willed-ness. It’s hard not to question what else I could be doing to produce a happy, pleasant little girl. 

Because what I know – but others don’t see – is that her actions do not go without consequences. I’m not a pushover parent who doesn’t address unacceptable behavior. I’ve tried so many approaches, I’m about ready to wave the white flag.

Sometimes discipline and consequences aren’t enough for some kids. Sometimes personality traits and temperaments are a deeply ingrained part of what makes a kid unique – whether they’re desirable qualities or not. 

Another thing many outsiders don’t see is that her feisty, challenging side is paired equally with a super sweet side. One that does listen to rules, is amenable to instruction, and loves her friends and sister deeply. I wish that side was present all the time, but it’s not. I wish she’d only act out at home, rather than in public, but that isn’t realistic. 

I pray that my daughter won’t be “the mean girl” her whole life. I pray that she’ll outgrow her strong-willed nature, although I know that’s unlikely. These characteristics will be with her for life, and I pray she will learn how to morph them into positive qualities.

I refuse to give up on my girl. So, I’ll keep doing what moms do: teaching, guiding, loving. I’ll remember the next time I hear or see a not-so-nice kid, that’s just one snapshot of who that child is.  And behind that child, is a parent who is probably doing her very best.