Parenting To the Lowest Common Denominator

Parker and iPad


Parker is almost six, though she will correct you immediately that she is “five and three-quarters” if she hears you say that because she is precise, and detail-oriented, and very much her father’s daughter in that way.

But she is my daughter too.

A daughter that I was petrified of having, and then elated that I was having – all because of a very tumultuous past I have with my own mother.  And becausewhile my experience with my mother may be unique, I realize that anyone who is the daughter of a mother or the mother of a daughter has a bond that is fraught with all the complications that have been written about, talked about, and psychoanalyzed long before Freud ever uttered the words “Electra Complex”.

And while I am careful not to attempt to live through her, and admittedly find myself recoiling a bit at the concept of living for her, I do want to try my best to experience the world with her. I want to show her the things that have made me happiest – hoping they might enrich her life as well – along with forewarning her about what I feel might cause her harm or heartbreak.

All of this, while walking that tightrope of parenting that that cautions agains becoming one of the many stereotypically “wrong” types of mother. You can’t be a “Helicopter” mom or too much of a “Free-Range” mom, and the “Tiger” mom is too overbearing yet the “Best Friend” mom is too permissive.

I just want to be her mom – yet I feel I have failed her to a certain extent in successfully figuring out who exactly that is and how exactly to execute that role successfully.

Parker and I went away together this weekend on a four-day road trip we have both been eagerly looking forward to.  Watching her run free, being able to say “Yes, we can go on that ferryboat” because I’m not worried about her trying to throw herself overboard, or “Yes, we can go down all of those big waterslides” because she is big enough and her brother wasn’t there to get upset that he couldn’t go, or “Yes, we can play Skee Ball and Air Hockey at the arcade” because I wasn’t concerned that she might send those wooden balls or plastic pucks flying into the heads of other unsuspecting game-playing patrons, well, it made me realize something with a jolt that felt very much like a figurative slap in the face.

As Parker stood on the deck of the very same ferryboat I had sailed on during a childhood field trip, as I watched her take it all in – waving to the people parasailing on the lake, eyes twinkling as she listened to the boat playing cheerful tunes on its calliope, face upturned to the sunshine – it hit me.

“We have been parenting to the lowest common denominator.” I told Scott later that night.

We have held her back when it was unsafe or unwise to push him forward.  I have been unable to let go of the vigilance I need to hold onto as his mother and find a way to let loose and sometimes just be her mommy.  It is an occupational hazard among the medical, sensory, and therapy-heavy day-to-day life we are currently living.  If I loosen my stronghold on control, on looking out, on keeping watch, on making sure and double-checking, there’s no saying what might happen. Temporarily loosening my grip on on small hands turns into darting out into busy parking lots and running downhill becomes a buckled knee or twisted ankle and a trip to the Emergency Room.  Saying “yes” to her, often means saying “no” to him – or forcing him to watch from the sidelines.  Saying “no” to both seems easier – more fair – though I am now seeing that it is the former rather than the latter.

She is cautious, shy, naturally anxious, sensitive and introverted.  She is fine with Scott and I going out at night for the occasional dinner with friends or work events, but worries about what time we’ll be home.  She is happy to play “school” or “camp” or “house” in her room for hours – often preferring long stretches of time by herself. She simmers in her emotions quietly, trying to push them down, worried that if she allows herself to fully feel them, they will somehow wrench themselves from her control and overpower her.  She is afraid that she will not get them back somehow.  She lashes out, then weeps as she apologizes for it.  Afterwards, she relegates herself to her room, emerging a short time later with a picture she’s drawn of you holding hands with her under a blue sky and a bright yellow sun with the words “I em Sorrie” or “I wul be beddur” written beneath in her preschooler’s scrawl.

It is heartbreaking to watch her inborn tendencies towards empathy clash with the developmentally-appropriate Id of an almost-Kindergartner. Having a brother with a potpourri of Special Needs only complicates things further. I look at her and just know that she is shouldering the self-imposed burden of feeling like she has to hold it all together at all times as she watches her little brother constantly coming apart at the seams. 

A version of a line from one of my favorite songs always reminds me of the two of them and describes them in relation to each other perfectly.

She is a china shop…and he is a bull.

He is hearty and she is delicate. He is impetuous where she is cautious.  She walks the perimeter and observes while he makes a beeline for the center of the room.  He will scream when you introduce yourself as she is hides behind me.  I need to give her permission to fly and I need to reign him in.

So how do I find a way to loosen my grip without letting go entirely? How to I find the switch within that allows me to tell my perpetual inner-lifeguard that it’s alright to go off-duty for a little while? How do I parent two completely different children with two very different sets of needs simultaneously and successfully – and safely?

We have indeed been parenting to the lowest common denominator. And that worked – for a time.  Until it didn’t add up anymore. Until the calculated risks that always seemed to high for him, have morphed into a price she is paying for all of the caution we’ve exercised. Until I saw her this weekend, until my eyes were opened up to the limitations we’ve been putting on her.

And she lost it a few times this weekend. She freaked out, lashed out, cried out. Same as it always is when her fears or insecurities or anxiety overtake her.  But something was different in me.  Instead of clenching up, usually already exhausted from holding on too-tightly to them both, my shoulders were down and I wore an expression of calm.  I crouched down, held her hand, and looked her in the eye.

“Hey, it’s okay to be mad, or sad, or frustrated,” I told her. “You can let it out. I’ll still be here when it’s over. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me love you any less. I’m not going anywhere.”

And it did pass. And she looked up at me and smiled her shy smile and I squeezed her hand.  And we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t have to. And I had the energy and the time and the patience to wait it out this weekend, to really see her.  And now that my eyes have been opened, I know I can’t go back.  I owe her that.

There will be no more parenting to the lowest common denominator.

She is one quarter of this family.  She is one half of our children.  She is a whole person.

And she counts.


  1. Karen Draper says

    Beautifully written and heartfelt. I too parented two completely ‘different ends of the spectrum’ children. Our son had Cerebral Palsy and our daughter was nominated for the gifted and talented program in first grade. Always the ‘good’ one. It is truly like walking a tight rope that being yanked at either end. All the best. ~Karen~

    • Jamie Krug says

      That tightrope analogy fits this perfectly, Karen! Especially when it feels like parenting often lacks a net beneath us!

  2. says

    This is lovely, Jamie. I don’t have any answers to these questions, which I share (they’re different for each parent, of course, but I think there are some strands of similarity) but I do think that being able to say: “go ahead, rage, be angry, be mad, and I will be here. There is nothing you can do to make me love you less” is about the definition of a good parent. I also think it’s the thing that each of us as a human being wants to hear more than any other. xox

    • Jamie Krug says

      Oh, how right you are about all of us needing to hear this. I guess that’s the reason I think it’s so incredibly important to have my children not just hear it, but believe it when I say it to them. I never heard that myself and I think it was really damaging to me… Thank you for sharing this, friend. I always look forward to your insights. xo

  3. says

    Wow, what a post Jamie! I can so relate to this.. My kids have some slightly conflicting temperaments (cautious and emotional 6 year old daughter) a slightly less cautious more easy going son. But our issue is opposite – we often lose sight of our son while tending to our anxious and tempermental daughter. There have been moments his safety was at risk because my husband and I were too busy focusing on his sister.

    Being a mom is hard – and being a mom to daughters, as daughters ourselves, is fraught!

    Glad to be on this journey with you, though 🙂


    • Jamie Krug says

      Thank you for sharing such an interesting perspective, Dana. I agree that the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters can certainly add another layer to things, and “fraught” is certainly a great word to describe it! It sounds like you have stood where we do in terms of temporarily losing sight of the needs of one child while attending to the other – always a challenge.

  4. says

    What a heartfelt, honest way to work through one of the many challenges we parents face: when we realize the status quo isn’t working or right anymore. Everything from the size of the food we’re cutting to the hours of curfew … they are constantly in flux as we examine ourselves in light of who our children are becoming. And you’re doing it, with such beautiful grace. I really loved reading this and hearing about your perspective as a parent of two children, especially since I only have one.

    • Jamie Krug says

      Oh, I LOVE where you talk about being “constantly in flux as we examine ourselves in light of who our children are becoming.” Beautiful and so true it hurts a little bit to read. But there is hope in that too, isn’t there? In knowing that we can grow right alongside them. Thank you so much for this, Kristen. xo

  5. says

    I think parents of more than one children feel this, even without the added stresses of medical issues. My kids are just so different and it’s so hard to parent them individually in the ways that best fit them. It’s an on-going struggle, one that I don’t always think I’m mastering.

    You are not alone.

    • Jamie Krug says

      Knowing I’m not alone in feeling this way means so much, Jenna. And you are right that this is a struggle for parents of any set of siblings! The challenges of parenting just keep morphing as they get older, don’t they? xo

  6. says

    For reasons I can’t really fully express here, I absolutely get this (from your daughter’s perspective). You’re so insightful to address it early, and I know it can’t be easy. She will thank you one day, somehow . . .

    Beautifully written.

  7. Chrissy says

    As always, your words hit the nail on the head so eloquently. Like others, I can relate to your experience and your insights have me reflecting on the limitations our younger son places upon our older son. That being said, I know they are both learning from each other along the way. I know each will be a fuller person because of their sibling, despite their differences. I challenge myself to see how “worldly” they both will become because they can see one another’s differences and accept each other for who they are. You are amazing, Jaime! Thank you for sharing and pushing us all to see deeper inside ourselves as parents.

  8. says

    When I was pregnant with my second child, Claire, a colleague handed me a book. “Siblings without Rivalry”. I thanked her but, I dismissed the book and tucked it away on my book shelf. When Claire was about two and child #1 was around six- our house was challenged. My 6 year old, Maddie, was so unhappy, sad and frustrated in all aspects of her life. I questioned whether it was possible for a 1st grader to be depressed?!?! And then my mom mentioned that Maddie had issues with Claire….. I remembered that noon that I dismissed and I read it- twice.
    The principles in the book are amazing. For any family withore than one child. I feel they could help you even though you have one special needs child.
    I recommend this book so highly! Please go get it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *