The heart of the matter
There are up sides and down sides of having several kids. One down side:
John and I sometimes fight frustration when a younger kid does the same dumb stuff an older one did. Our internal reaction to black scuff marks on walls, or bikes that turn into rust buckets after being left outside sometimes feels a bit out of proportion. We feel like we’ve covered this issue already. And we’re right, we have– except then we have to remind ourselves it wasn’t with this kid.
The second kid who sneaks peeks at the answer key instead of working through a math problem, then unwisely writes: “Answers may vary” sometimes gets a more intense reaction: “REALLY? Again????” Again, we have to remind ourselves this is a different kid though the issue may be familiar.
But there are benefits too. We may be battle-weary, but we are also a bit wiser. Lately I’ve really felt like God has been impressing on me the importance of sorting out what’s going on in our kids’ hearts, something that I wasn’t focused enough on as a young mother 15 years ago.
I don’t naturally reside in the world of emotions– maybe it’s the type of person I am. I remember as a kid being embarrassed at times by a more emotional sister of mine. I just didn’t get her. My Spock tendencies translated into a fair bit of ‘surface’ parenting in my early years of mothering too. That first kid who copied math answers out of the answer key got a stern lecture something along the lines of ‘that’s wrong – never again!’ and most likely a mandatory redo of the previous 10 lessons of math. No real discussion, most likely no inquiring into why a person would do that.
I just didn’t get into their heads and hearts enough, didn’t talk through challenges enough. They were well-adjusted kids who wanted to please me, so I got away with it. But looking back I can see I missed some chances to find out what was really going on when they were struggling, to encourage them along the way, and to build more emotional closeness. I also missed chances to help them learn to sort out their own feelings.
In recent years I’ve spent many hours wading through the huge, impossible-to-avoid feelings of kids with complicated life stories. Feelings so big it reminds me of honey spilled on carpet; even if you work and scrub and clean for a long time, you’ll still find remnants of stickiness in random places later on.
God, who sees my own weaknesses as well as those of my children, has been working on me, too, through their challenges. He’s teaching me the importance of that emotional realm in all of our souls. If you don’t dig in and find out what’s going on in a hurting child’s heart, you can’t really encourage him toward right actions. You just can’t. Heaven knows I’ve tried. Come to think of it, it’s even hard to change your own habits until you figure out why you’re clinging to them so hard.
I’m still far from touchy-feely. (Even my word choice there tells you that, doesn’t it?) But today I tend to probe deeper than I would have a decade ago. A kid copying answers out of the answer key these days would be treated to a mom-led soul-searching:
“Why do you think you did this? Were you wanting to go play? Did the math feel like too much hassle? Were you feeling frustrated? How do you think you’re doing in the diligence department? What does God have to say about diligence and work? Do you see that you were putting your own wishes over what God wants you to do? What do you think would help you choose right next time?”
I’m still too heavy-handed at times. I have to remind myself to leave big spaces for kids to talk and think and share what’s happening inside. I also still need to get better at asking about feelings during times of relative peace, not just when a kid’s being obnoxious and I’m trying to figure out why. But I’m slowly becoming a person who’s more comfortable mucking around in the depths with my kids, talking through not only the behavior I see on the outside, but what’s actually going on in their hearts. I hope that conversations like these will help our kids get better at sorting out their own feelings. I know I’m getting better at sorting out my own.
What about you? What are you learning about yourself as you strive to parent your children well? What do you wish you understood right from the start?