I was in a sweet spot, with a beautiful picture and what I thought were some pretty thoughtful, impressive words to caption it—something about the delightfulness of our crazy life with three children, I’m sure. And then my five-year-old came down from the playroom with “Mommy! Mommy!” on repeat. One of her little brothers had bumped in to her with the swing and was not sharing the toys and then yelled “no, sissy!” at her. And let me tell you, five-year-old girls feel, and they feel deeply, which in our home translates to quite a bit of drama and an excellent attempt at manufacturing some tears.
I know these are the perfect occasions to parent. And that’s parent as a verb, the action of it. To stop what I am doing, walk her through the conflict, give her language for her big feelings, and talk to her about how her little brothers will not be able to share as well as she can. Sibling arguments and struggles are incredible teaching moments, and the opportunity to make my daughter a little bit better and a little bit wiser and send her back upstairs was quite literally dropped at my feet.
And I told her to wait until I was done.
Just in case you don’t remember, I was working hard on an Instagram caption.
She persisted in telling me how she had been wronged but I had no interest in stopping the momentum on my profound words for people on the internet that I do not know and oh my goodness that ridiculous whining! So I raised my voice at her, told her to stop complaining and go work it out. The five, three and two-year-old should be able to work things out, right? Especially when mom is in the middle of something important, like social media.
It was not more than two days later when that same five-year-old was watching the iPad on our couch. “Five more minutes of screen time, Harper,” I dutifully warned her. She sat unresponsive, the typical state of most children (adults, too?) with a screen in their hands. And when what felt like five minutes to me had passed, I walked over and told her “time is up!”
She immediately started yelling. “Mom, I’m not done with my show! No, no, I need it!”
Having given her a five-minute warning, I was not feeling too bad about taking the iPad, so I stood my ground. “Sorry, Harper, it’s time to be done. You had enough time to watch a show and now we need to take a bath and get ready for bed.”
Cue the feelings, which grate a little extra on a mom’s nerves by 7 p.m. But when mom says “you’re done,” then you’re done. And I want to raise children who respect and listen the first time. ‘All the way, right away, with a happy heart’ is the obedience mantra in our home, and darn if I wasn’t going to force the first two at all costs. We continued to clash with our words a minute or two, me and my five-year-old, before my threats of “you will never get to watch this iPad again if you don’t give it to me right now!” eventually won. She reluctantly handed over the prize.
Ultimately, I got the behavior I wanted. It took a few minutes of arguing and I wish it hadn’t, but the screen time stopped and Harper was on her way to the bath. From a strictly objective perspective, mom won.
But I totally lost my little girl. She learned nothing about the heart and motive of good behavior, but simply succumbed to the pressure of a threat. This was not a parenting victory; it was the fear-based response of a five-year-old, which works only as long as our children are afraid of us. But if they respect us? That is a whole different ball game altogether. Even a five-year-old can spot a glaring inconsistency, and I think I started losing her respect back when I was the one who could not be interrupted.
Being a parent is really hard. It is really wonderful, but hard. But I think it is hard not just because children need a lot of grace and a lot of correction, but because I need a lot of grace and a lot of correction, and that’s not an easy truth to sit with. I am so much quicker to see my children’s need for repentance and forgiveness more than my own, but when I really think about it, I am a whole lot like my kids. I get fussy when I am interrupted. I get irritable when I don’t get what I want. I fight back when my time is intruded upon. Time after time, I fail to model the exact behavior I want out of these little people in my care. And yet seeing that I need exactly what my kids need—grace, correction, a re-orientation of my heart and a daily dose of humbling—has been the most refreshing paradigm for my mothering. There is just something about beginning my day by acknowledging my own sin that opens up a whole lot more room for the patience to parent through my kids’ sin, not simply mask it with punishment.
From the youngest among us to the oldest, we all need the same thing: grace. And we never stop needing it. We cannot give our children a perfect mother but we sure can give them a humble one. Rules are necessary and boundaries are there for protection, but our kids might just learn the most about that ‘happy heart’ piece of obedience by seeing it in their mother—someone who admits her own enormous need for forgiveness, and then joyfully lives out just how thankful she is that Jesus gave her all the grace she would ever require.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.