Yesterday the three kids and I returned from a two-week trip to the northeast to visit family during my husband’s month-long work-related absence. It caused me to reflect on the changes that have occurred in our household – and in my husband’s and my parenting – over the past twelve months. Last November our son turned three, and it was during that month that God showed us we had to make changes in childrearing. Big changes. My parents visited us last fall about two weeks before this revelation, when our situation was at its worst; it blessed me to talk with them last week about how different things are now.
On our son’s third birthday last November, I wrote: “The day started off less than promisingly with a 45-minute battle of wills surrounding J’s total unwillingness to change out of his pull-up diaper… a scene very much in keeping with the tantrum and discipline processes that have become routine over the past six weeks. Typical 3-year-old stuff, we understand, but less than fun nevertheless and not how I would have chosen to kick off his birthday.”
About a month later, after we had begun to make the changes we felt God calling us to, I wrote this:
“It became clear that our methods of disciplining J were losing their effectiveness. He didn’t especially mind being in time-out and emerged fairly unrepentant. He intentionally escalated his crying episodes in his room to hold us hostage – knowing that we disliked the idea of lengthy temper tantrum episodes and wished for him to stop so we could get on with life. Days became long and unpleasant. We were constantly telling our son ‘no’ and instructing him to behave differently, but he wasn’t receiving our direction (at least not much or often), and his defiant behavior escalated. In effect, our disciplinary efforts seemed to punish us more than J. We were irritated – even resentful toward him – much of the time. He was, in my husband’s words, ‘becoming a terror’ regardless of our efforts to prevent this. We realized that we were enabling a problematic situation that could not continue. What we were doing wasn’t working, and everyone in our family – including J – was suffering.”
I will never stop thanking God for the weekend when my husband said: “This has got to stop.” You see, we had always thought of ourselves as firm, intentional parents. We didn’t overlook misbehavior – we tried to address it. As the third birthday episode reflects, I thought what we were going through was normal. It was unpleasant, yes, and required patience and a longsuffering mindset on our part – but hey, our strong-willed 3-year old was just being a 3-year old. If he didn’t respond well to our disciplinary efforts, we would just have to keep doing what we were doing and hope that eventually it would pay off.
I see now that I was working exceptionally hard in my parenting… but I wasn’t working smart. I addressed every infraction, yes, but it wasn’t penetrating. His will to misbehave was stronger than my will to prevent him from misbehaving — and consequently we were all losing. James Dobson says, “Many kids are able to win the contest of wills because they devote their primary effort to the game, while we grown-ups play only when we must” (and I would add – only to a degree sufficient to get through that one situation without losing our minds instead of playing to the bigger picture). In causing my son to stop behaving unacceptably I prevailed perhaps 75% of the time. I felt like I was doing the best I could. But my son thought: ‘Hey, if I push hard enough I get my way 25% of the time (and frazzle my mom 100% of the time). Those aren’t bad odds. If I keep at it, I bet I can widen those margins.’
Too, while I was addressing every issue that came up with our son – tantrums, whining, lack of cooperation, rudeness, meanness to his sister – I was missing the big picture. He did not submit to my authority. He did not obey me. Ted Tripp hits the nail on the head when he says, “The most important lesson for the child to learn during the infancy to childhood period is that he is an individual under authority… (Children’s) submission to (parents’) authority – is foundational for the entire parent-child relationship.” I was responding to individual infractions without addressing the one underlying crucial concept: my son didn’t obey me and I had a God-given responsibility to train him to do so. I had to find and employ means to ensure that he did.
A lot can happen in a year. By bringing our son squarely under our authority, we found and now can relish the fun, smart, delightful child God gave us. Because when a child is undisciplined and focused on prevailing in his wilfulness, that’s mainly what you see. You don’t get to enjoy the many facets of the child; instead you see his rebellion, or rudeness or whininess. He may be bright and funny and cute as all heck somewhere underneath, but it won’t get out – at least not much. Worse, his lack of submission to authority and resulting lack of self-control can create more problems like trouble getting along with other kids and difficulty with teachers. How many boys get labeled ADHD in today’s schools whose main problem is that their parents never prevailed in teaching them they are ‘individuals under authority’? My son could easily have been one.
Happy fourth birthday little man. We thank God for you and for God’s faithfulness in giving us all we need to raise you well as we follow him.