Peculiar Parenting

Why don’t Mummies sit on the step?

Please be reassured – this not the start of a joke! “Why don’t mummies sit on the step?”  “I don’t know – why don’t Mummies sit on the step?”

Although laughter is always welcome so if you have any comical suggestions please do share!

It is a question that my disgruntled son (the Court Jester) asked me this morning. So why don’t we? Is there a grown-up equivalent of sitting on the step (our version of the naughty step)? Within the household I don’t think there is. At least there isn’t one in our household. Why? It certainly isn’t because the parents are perfect! So what is particular about parents reacting to sin in their children’s lives as opposed to the sin in their own lives?

On a very practical note we could answer: because we have (hopefully) learnt, and our children need to learn that some behaviour is just not acceptable. They still need to learn things that we have already learned. They learn this safely within the ‘society’ of the household to equip them for life in the big wide world where the consequences are much worse than a few minutes sitting still.

Which brings me to the point that the step would be a useless act of discipline for most grown-ups who would pay for 5 minutes of doing nothing!

But there are much bigger issues at stake then life skills and the advantages of submitting to the human authorities in our lives.

One of our jobs as parents is to train up our children to understand that they live in a world where they are not the ultimate authority. Our authority (demonstrated amongst other things by meteing* out discipline) is a God-given way for them to learn about his authority in their lives. When our children are disciplined for rebelling against our authority it is a way of teaching them that submitting to God’s authority is a blessed way to live and that rebelling against it always leads to pain sooner or later.

It is not that parents are not under any authority. Just not within our household structures. Of course parents are subject to the laws of our country (- hence the grown-up naughty step – prison!) and more importantly we are under God’s authority and will have to give account to him for the way we have used our authority.

So to answer the Court Jester: Because the parents’ role in the family is to demonstrate godly authority. God has given us authority over you, and HE is in charge of disciplining us.

This of course does not mean that we don’t apologise to our children when we sin against them. We also need to have regular moments in our days and weeks when we do reflect on what we may need to repent of, what we need to seek God’s forgiveness for and help with overcoming. The ‘activities’ of the step are not inappropriate for parents and perhaps we need to be better at remembering that – it is just that we need to take the responsibility for taking that time ourselves  – and plead with God to help us in that.

So I could go on to explain to the Court Jester: I need to say sorry to God regularly too. I need to look carefully into the mirror of God’s word, just like I try to help you do when you are on the step. Will you pray for me that our heavenly Father helps me to see when I need to do that?

Of course the other reason that Mummies don’t sit on the step (or go through any immediate visual moment of discipline) is that the sin I am guilty of, while no less prolific, is generally of a different nature. The broken rules that tend to end up in a stint on the step are set by us to be applied to the children and simply do not cover the internal sins that we are all guilty of. While we as parents are far from perfect we don’t tend to hit, lie, bite, call each other names, disobey the direct order of someone in authority over us (because in the household there isn’t anyone!) throw things that shouldn’t be thrown, refuse to eat our food and generally act in a way that is anti-social.

If we do ever find ourselves crossing these lines of course we need to appropriately discipline ourselves and seek forgiveness and in extreme circumstances obviously outside authorities would need to become involved.

No, generally the sin in my life is far better hidden. It is less likely to burst out in the immature behaviour outlined above. It sneaks from my heart and my desires into my words and behaviour far more subtly (like stolen money being hidden in numerous off-shore bank accounts) and for that kind of sin something much more radical than a step is required. Steps, or time outs or fines or prison basically manage behaviour. Handled well they go deeper than that to the heart issues below – but the surface outburst is the pivotal factor. The discipline that God gives to all his children, no matter how grown-up they are, is far more effective and far reaching and while not always pleasant, I thank God for it.

God does not rely on an external indicator – he knows our hearts and thankfully doesn’t leave them undisciplined. But, as parents we actually need those external indicators. Our children’s hearts are naturally rotten (as are ours!) and some of that sin will not expose itself in ‘step-wards’ words behaviour. BUT mercifully much of it does. I thank God for the opportunity our children’s childish behaviour gives us. I thank God for the straight line from a child’s action to his or her heart, for the X-ray like view that parents often have of an event in the core causing the surface explosion. I thank God for these explosions because they give us ample (!!!!!) opportunities to teach our children what the human heart is like, to expose the lie that sin isn’t real or at least isn’t a problem, and to dazzle them with God’s grace.

So when life resembles a minefield and surface of explosions seem to be triggered every 5 minutes I need my heavenly Daddy to remind me that this is a good gift from him and that he will use it for his glory.

*Not at all convinced I have spelt ‘meted’ correctly.

Due Diligence

The One and Only Daughter has got her first ever flute exam on Thursday and I am feeling nervous. I don’t think I have done a good job preparing her for it. I don’t mean in terms of helping her with scales and arpeggios – assistance from me in that quarter was never an expectation.  No, I am speaking more about teaching her to find a godly path between careless laziness on the one hand, and obsessive, ‘identity hanging in the balance’ anxiety. It is easy to say: “Just do your best and we will love you whatever” but I’m not sure that it really hits the mark, or truly opens up the issues adequately. I don’t know about you, but identifying what my best is at any given moment is not as simple as it sounds. Elements to put into the mix in the run up are:

  • Commitment and follow through – she made the decision to take the exam, and it has been paid for. I want to encourage her to reflect and, dare I use the word, respect that in the effort she puts in.
  • The command to do everything to the glory of God. Which doesn’t mean being excellent at everything, or even anything. If nerves get the better of her, or she simply hasn’t put the work in she can glorify God by the way she handles failure. For now though it is her care and attitude in preparing that can glorify God. It is her peace as it gets closer – her trust that things are OK, that her value doesn’t lie in the quality of the preparation she does or she result she gets. If she is in Christ then she is perfectly precious, because He is.
  • An element of obedience and humility as she responds to our reminders and prompts. Self-control when she wants to do something else or resists our feedback.
  • An openness to invest carefully in this in order to use the skill to serve God and his people.
  • My need to be her fan, her supporter and to be gentle and tender to her rather than crazy Mum.

Growing up I closely tied my sense of worth and other people’s love for me to my performance. Grace is a hard concept for me! I want to do all I can to stop this link forming in my children’s hearts and minds. My prayer is that they will be diligent in their various tasks and activities, but that their identity would not be tied in any way to their successes or failures in them. That their efforts would not be at the expense of more valuable things such as love. That they would fear the Lord rather than their industry.

At a loss – the (award winning!) introduction

Once again I find myself at a complete loss in parenting my children! This should NOT come as a surprise. I know that you can never be an expert at parenting, that there are always new challenges and stages and that the goal posts move constantly. I know that the plans and ideas and techniques you have gathered and compiled so carefully are just precarious structures that tend to get knocked over and scattered across the floor the moment the children come through the door after school. I know that parenting involves constant re-assessment and questioning and re-evaluating. I know this because if you gathered up all the parenting uncertainties and questions that I am dealing with at any one moment and put them in thought bubbles above my head I would look like a balloon seller at the zoo, or float away like the house in Up!

Bedtimes; bible times; vegetables; homework; sleepovers; mobile phones; what is the school policy about head lice again – do they really want me to keep her off for the day? Should I try and expand The Court Jester’s reading or just be glad that he is gobbling up that particular set of books? How do I balance time together as a family with The One and Only Daughter’s need for time on her own and The All-or-Nothing’s struggle to join in with family activities unless he can do them perfectly and as well as everyone else?

And that’s just the everyday things – add in having ongoing conversations about why church is boring and yet also the very place where God is at work in the world and how the dinosaurs fit in with Genesis 1 and 2 and I’m no longer floating, but sinking.

Parenting is not a job you can get promoted in – in fact it feels at the moment, at times anyway, that I am being demoted through the ranks from best person in the world and source of all joy* to troublesome person who is sometimes handy as a driver and a cook – although even my driving and my cooking don’t escape without regular scathing evaluations from the self appointed senior staff.

But seriously, discouraged and bruised feelings aside, (and yes that is the subtle aroma of jaded exhaustion and despair that you are detecting!) I have long been aware that I am not going to feel more and more competent and able as a parent – because being a parent today is a whole new ball game than being a parent yesterday.

[OK – that isn’t completely true but run with me on this before I get completely drawn off track]

So, IF I am so aware of my lack of expertise in parenting – WHY am I surprised to find myself at such a complete loss when it comes to our current battles with The All-or-Nothing?

There I did it – I got to my main point! And the winner for the longest introduction to a not very amazing main point is…. Johanna for ‘At a loss’ in her blog Supper’s NOT in the slow cooker. Cue award ceremony music and then fade for the acceptance speech: “Thank you, what an honour, I would like to thank the latte that has fuelled me this far… …”

Cut to commercials.

* A limited season peaking at the point when they first learn to smile and tailing off dramatically when they work out that even when they say “please”, Mummy doesn’t always say “yes”!

At a loss – the situation

And we’re back – let’s recap.

The question: IF I am so aware of my lack of expertise in parenting – WHY am I surprised to find myself at such a complete loss when it comes to our current battles with The All-or-Nothing?

Which is exactly where I find myself – at a complete loss. Although I suppose it would be more accurate to say that that is where I have lost myself!

Indeed I do feel as though I have been dropped from a plane into a maze in the middle of enemy territory in the black of night. My parachute is trailing awkwardly behind me and must be dealt with ASAP. At the same time I need to: work out my bearings; recall standard operating procedure; take evasive action from enemy fire; oh and cook the tea and try and remember how to spell polystyrene.

Let me describe my surroundings to you by taking you through some of the behaviour typical of an All or Nothing tantrum.

Out and about: Running away at pace and with determination. Taking something (a football cone, his school bag….) and depositing it the other side of a fence or across a playing field.

In the car: Trying to open the door and undo his seatbelt.

At home: Pulling things off shelves; breaking things; emptying drawers; hitting, kicking, spitting, shouting…and – well it gets worse on occasion, but let’s leave it there.

He is a strong and passionately determined 5 year old so when he does these thing he does them thoroughly.

At times it seems the only thing we can do (to keep the All or Nothing and the rest of the family safe and to ensure that the house is left in one piece) is to hold him still in a kind of whole body clamp. In the midst of these “pinning sessions” we have some weird exchanges.

“Let me go!” He says.

“What do you want to do if we let you go?” We ask as calmly as possible.

“I want to kill you and I want to die!” He says

On another occasion he tells us how nasty we are, he insists that he is the grown-up and we are the babies and that he knows everything. He is convinced that we are lying and he is telling the truth. He also claimed to be able to fly and speak French!

This last claim was so bizarre that we burst out laughing (rather hysterically because this was one hour into the tantrum by now) and thankfully he too got the giggles and then calmed down.

Recently something flicked his switch on the way to school and I had to somehow get him home, with the other two in tow, leave him with NTV and then take the others to school. I just didn’t feel able to walk them safely along our village streets (no pavements) with the All or Nothing in tantrum mode. Thankfully by the time I got back home he had calmed down and I was then able to take him.

The added ingredient to all this is of course real life – as hinted at in that last example. There seems to be an inverse tantrum microscope that makes things look smaller and funnier than they were in situ. (Thankfully!) Let’s see what happens when we take these events out of the blog laboratory and put them in their natural habitat.

(Yes, I am aware that we are in fact still in the blog laboratory, but run with me here. Believe me you don’t actually want to be here when an All or Nothing tantrum takes place – the risk assessments would be a nightmare!)

So I’m in the kitchen finishing off the supper (not in the slow cooker on this occasion!) and the boys are setting the table quite happily. I become aware of a kerfuffle* involving cups behind me, but hold fire to see if they can sort it out. They can’t! After the All or Nothing has repeatedly thrown the Court Jester’s cup on the floor the Court Jester has lost his sense of humour and is building up to either retaliate or simply give up and run away. I give clear, no room for negotiation, instructions and they are ignored. Separation needs to happen ASAP. The supper is abandoned. The All or Nothing has been calmly (at least I am 80% sure I pulled off ‘calmly’) told to go to ‘the step’ and having also quite calmly refused is then carried there. Further to more struggling the All or Nothing whole body grip is then employed.

Meanwhile the Court Jester is upset, the table isn’t laid, and the meal is stalled. I am tired and hungry and physically struggling to protect myself from violence while also working out how to show love, mercy and grace and yet clearly convey God’s authority, the danger of rebellion, and the consequences of walking away from God’s good ways.

Or imagine this – it’s bed time, but there is no time for reading with Mummy. Why? Because there has been repeated disobedience – and time has literally run out. As indeed he was warned it would. The problem is the All or Nothing seems to have no resources for dealing with life when it doesn’t look the way he wants it to look – and that ‘way’ is quite detailed. The result of being denied reading time is not therefore a disappointed, but thoughtful little boy lying in bed considering Mum’s authority and the goodness of submitting to it, but more akin to the reaction of a bull to the proverbial red rag. Being unconvinced of the wisdom of the physical restraint method (at some point he will be too strong and then what do I do?) I merely watched as he went about emptying every box, moving furniture, scattering books and generally causing as much disruption as was possible. So I had a very tired and angry All or Nothing, a bedroom that looked more like a war zone, a displaced Court Jester (who had been evicted so that he could read peacefully in the One and Only Daughter’s room) and a meeting proceeding downstairs without me.

Most recently, picture us on Mothering Sunday. We’re sitting in the front row of our small ancient church building. I am more heavily involved in the service (lay** led this week) than I had expected due to illness in the team and so am quite flustered. NTV is rightly sitting with someone who is having a bit of a hard time. Some combination of events have managed to trigger one of the All or Nothing’s highly sensitive, highly explosive, mental and emotional landmines. In a desperate attempt at damage limitation I pick up the ticking bomb and hold it to myself, the ticking bomb takes my glasses. I am very short sighted and feel really out of control at this moment. The One and Only Daughter, who struggles with this particular service, has prepared sheets and a craft for her brothers to do during the service to make it more child friendly. She has quite intense feeling about how these should be done and is anxiously keen that I make sure that they can show their craft at the end of the meeting. She is stressing next to me. This all happens during a hymn which I would quite like to be singing, but I can’t see the words! My hair is being pulled, I have no idea where my glasses have been secreted and I realise I have to just get the bomb out of the building. I abandon the One and Only Daughter to her stress and make my exit. It is of course quietly drizzling outside. Feeling freer to explode in this environment the All or Nothing (still being held my me) decides to up the level of attack – clutching my throat and shouting to let him go. On being asked what he will do if I put him down he informs me he will run away. The church building is on the main road through the village, cars don’t slow to 30mph and there is a distinct absence of pavements. I keep hold of him. Inside the building all the ladies are being given bouquets of flowers in honour of Mothering Sunday! I enjoy the irony of this. The All or Nothing decides he would actually rather be inside after all. We go in, NTV helps me find my glasses and I am just in time to let the service leader know that the children want to show their craft. The All or Nothing is not happy that his sister has his craft up front and sobs in the front pew.

Friends – on these occasions I am at a loss. There seem to be too many things that need to be done and said all at the same time or rather in a carefully thought out order that will both manage the situation and use it wisely to discipline and disciple. Racing through my head is a list of questions – the sort that are asked with a pointing, accusing finger. What precedents are you setting for the future? Are you pointing your child to Jesus or just distorting his or her view of him? Are you giving them a great picture of grace or just making a joke of your authority or? I mean how do you respond when you’re told: but Mummy you need to be merciful like God is!? Basically it is virtually impossibly to develop a careful well designed counter move when blind and under attack!

There is, of course, the option of creating a standard operating procedure that automatically springs to mind when under pressure. The problem is that what seems so clear when you are reading the book over coffee or chatting it through with a friend (or even writing a blog) becomes about as clear as mud on the battlefield – giving you the additional headache of trench foot to worry about!

So is it just a case of muddling through as best we can – or is there some strategy we can employ to help us feel less lost in it all? Well that’s another post!

* Spell checker does not like this word – but I firmly disagree – kerfuffle perfectly describes what was going on and it is also a joy to use!
** Church of England speak for people who aren’t vicars!

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