Early this month my sister and her family were in town, and we spent a wonderful week together with our combined five children under age 6. Her daughters are, like mine, ages 3 and 1 – just slightly younger versions.
Our 3-year old is strong-willed and extremely stubborn. Sometimes she amazes me in her sheer longevity in rebelliousness. I wonder: isn’t she exhausted from all this resistance, kept up for so long? (I know I am.) The girl is wired to stick to her guns at all costs, even when experience shows that she will not prevail in defiance.
During her visit my sister witnessed several instances in which my daughter was very defiant in an outwardly rude way; two in particular stick out. After the second my sister commented on my response to my daughter’s rather outrageous behavior – that I’d addressed her calmly and not gotten riled up as I worked with her till she relented and apologized. “I would have been so angry at behavior like that if I were in your shoes!” she said. Her tone was honest, earnest, no hidden message or criticism.
I felt two simultaneous responses, conflicting ones. One was: I guess I’m making progress if I can calmly work with my daughter through her misbehavior without having it overly inflame my emotions and ruin my day. The second was: wow, she really is that rude and defiant at times, even after having corrected her for months and years on these issues. Shouldn’t she be getting past this by now? Am I doing something wrong in my training – misapplying my methods, perhaps, or lacking consistency or thoroughness in them?
The first response is truer and more helpful; it’s the one I want to camp on emotionally and mentally. I remember a year ago feeling so frustrated by my children’s misbehaviors when they occurred. I’d do okay during the actual correcting part as I worked with a kid – calm and not too rattled – but then I couldn’t mentally and emotionally let go of the incident afterwards. When another issue would come up, even with another child, say twenty minutes later, I wouldn’t yet have fully regained my equilibrium from the last one; I was operating under a deficit. The effect was that I’d often feel like I was being ratcheted up throughout the day, each infraction and correction process irking me a bit more as the hours wore on.
Part my problem was over-thinking, but another part was an unrealistic view of sin in my children. Because I believed – and still believe – that intentional training can build obedience into children and bring harmony to a a home, I internalized the concept that my children should, in effect, sin less with each passing day. Their misbehaviors should wane predictably; their selfishness should dry up over time. And while it’s true that godly childrearing practices do shape children in their hearts and behaviors, bringing forth fruit over time, it’s not true that my kids’ sinfulness will basically disappear by the time they’re school-aged simply through my parenting them well. It’s just not.
So if my son struggles with a complaining spirit (and he does), we will likely see this issue in one form or another for a long time. For all I know he may combat a tendency to complain his whole life. It may wane as my husband and I consistently train and correct him (and we pray it does!), but it may not go away completely. Ditto my daughter’s stubbornness and streak toward rebellious independence. God made her stubborn; we pray that He’ll shape that resolve for good as she grows, matures, and develops self-control and a love for Christ. May she become stubborn for righteousness and justice! But I’m probably not going to see her defiance completely melt away and a compliant spirit fully replace it, no matter how intentional, prayerful, and consistent I am in my mothering.
It goes back to the “once-and-for-all parenting” delusion that I referred to in my “Childrearing Top 10′ post from last summer. The quote, from Katherine of Raising Five, was so good that I’ll repeat it here.
“I spent much of my early years trying to do everything perfectly. Somehow I got the idea that if I did everything right – if I love my kids enough, use just the right discipline techniques, if I train them well enough in how to behave – I would never have to struggle in parenting them. My delusion even somehow included the idea that conflict would even disappear from my home, because I was doing everything properly. My kids would naturally want to obey me, sit at my feet and hear my words of wisdom, and, like Cinderella, my home would be a ‘happily ever after’ kind of place. I had ‘fixed’ them.
It was a delusion, alright. An arrogant, fanatical, un-Biblical idea, that I could singlehandedly purge the sin-nature right out of my children! If only I had known it is not so much about being perfect – and the guilt and exhaustion that inevitably accompany it – as it is about not giving up.”
I definitely feel the faithfulness of God over the past six or nine months, bringing me to a more balanced place when it comes to viewing and interacting with my children. The conversation with my sister reiterated this for me. My kids are sinners; they will so often act in ways I wish they wouldn’t ways I’m actively training them not to, in fact! But God, praise be to Him, uses time and repetition and falling down and getting up again (and again and again) to gradually shape us into Christlikeness. And most of all He uses grace and undergirding love – grace toward me; grace toward them. Grace toward them through me, even. Amazing.