Parenting is a humbling process. I say “process,” not “job,” because while the end goal of this adventure is a constant, the day-to-day details change over time. My biggest dream for my children is that they would grow up to love and follow Jesus. Period. But how to encourage them in that direction looks very different as they age from 7 days, to 7 months, to 7 years. And the frequent changes and mistakes I make as I adapt to my maturing children remind me how much I still have to learn about this parenting gig.
Our 4 boys were all born within just 6 years and 2 months of each other. Our youngest came along 19 months ago and is not weaned yet. As you can imagine, the last nearly 8 years of my life have been inextricably linked to diapers, breastfeeding, spit-up, early-AM feedings, baby-wearing, potty training, puréed food, teething, sleep deprivation, diaper-bag toting, baby-proofing and whatever else seems to fit in that list.
By this point, I feel like I’ve got this baby thing down.
(I’m also an expert in baby cuddles, baby smiles, baby giggles, baby talk, toddler exploration, and little-boy fascination with bugs and body parts and bodily functions, just so you know.)
However, I feel like we’re entering a new stage with our two oldest children, who are now attending second grade and kindergarten. With their broadened social horizons, they are thinking about new things, asking philosophical questions, and facing difficult situations. A stock Oh-Sweetie-I’m-sorry-can-Mommy-kiss-it response just doesn’t cut it anymore, and I’m feeling the need to upgrade my parenting skills to meet these new demands.
I see a tendency in myself, and maybe in grown-ups in general, to minimize the disappointments and hurts that children experience, since they are usually caused by things that seem insignificant in an adult world. But I still remember what it was like to be a child, and though many of the issues I faced may have been pint-sized, the emotions I experienced were full-fledged. Sometimes it was profoundly frustrating and hurtful to have my feelings dismissed by adults who believed that children should be seen and not heard. I want to raise my children with compassion and understanding for their viewpoint. To do that, I have to take the time to get down on their level to listen and see the world through their eyes. And I’m having plenty of opportunity to practice this philosophy these days.
How do you respond to a child who is almost hysterical, wailing in public, because it’s not his turn to jump on the large trampoline we had set up at a church picnic? I wanted to tell him sternly to stop it and get control of himself, because his behavior was ridiculous, and he could wait his turn. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to find out what the deeper issue was. It turned out he was distraught because he had been looking forward to jumping with English-speaking kids, but the person in charge of the trampoline told him he would have to jump with Ukrainian children. Being an extremely talkative and social child who wasn’t comfortable speaking Ukrainian yet, he was incredibly distressed. Sometimes I still feel nervous when forced into an all-Ukrainian environment without warning, and I speak the language fairly well, so I could understand his emotions. I tried to help him see how it could be fun to jump with his Ukrainian-speaking friends, but ultimately, nothing I said could reconcile him to the situation, so I allowed him the space to grieve.
What about when my 7-year-old throws a fit because the knock-off Legos he’s trying to use to build a spaceship keep popping off and ruining his project? While I don’t condone hysterics or tantrums, I can relate to the anger that comes when something you worked hard to do is destroyed in an instant. When one of my kids dumps out a basket of freshly folded laundry and scatters it all over the floor, it makes me so mad I could scream. But I don’t, because I have learned to control myself, most of the time. So in this situation, instead of just rolling my eyes and telling him to go play with something else (which is what I wanted to do), I explained that his behavior wasn’t appropriate and modeled an acceptable response. Only after that did I tell him that if he couldn’t control his anger, he would need to play with a different toy.
Or what about when my 5-year-old comes home from kindergarten in tears, day after day, because the same child keeps picking on him? At first I was just trying to sympathize and comfort him, but then I realized I was missing out on a valuable teaching opportunity. So I told him what Jesus said about loving our enemies, doing good things to people who do bad things to us, and praying for people who are mean to us. I also talked with him about forgiveness and how anger and resentment are like poison in our hearts that will turn us into bad guys. Then we prayed together, and he decided to forgive the other little boy and take him a gift. And you know what? The meanness stopped that day, and more importantly, my little boy learned a valuable lesson that I hope he will carry with him all his life.
I don’t share these examples to give the impression that I have all the answers or that I’m a perfect parent. Far from it. In many ways these days, I feel like I’m parenting blind, relying on feel and instinct. This is uncharted territory, and I’m still trying to figure out the best methods to use with each of my kids. The confidence and rules that once defined how I related to my children have given way to a deep appreciation for our shared humanity and an increasing knowledge of my capacity to make mistakes. I probably fail as often as I get it right (or more often), but I’m encouraged that little by little I’m making progress in learning to listen to my children and hear their hearts.
It’s a fearful responsibility to be entrusted with the nurturing and development of another human being, and it’s humbling to realize how often I fall short of being the wise, compassionate, and patient mommy that is my ideal. Hardly a day passes that I don’t thank God that His mercies are new every morning, and I begin each day with fresh resolve to continue to grow in this adventure of parenthood.
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