"But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more. My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure." Psalm 71:14-15

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Parenting in the Space of Grace

Many of you who frequent my Facebook page know something of the struggles I've had parenting my sweet, spirited, emotional, somewhat defiant, intelligent, loving little boy.  I believe in being honest and a bit raw on social media, none of that "coming up roses" version of not-real-life here.

Over the past couple of months, I really felt like I have emotionally turned a corner, in my personal growth and my journey as a parent.  As anyone who knows me can tell, I carry a very rigid sense of right/wrong, just/unjust, acceptable/unacceptable, which revolves around the core framework of my faith and how we should treat others.  You know, I take the whole "do unto others as you would have done to you" thing very seriously. This rigidity has affected my parenting, I believe in a negative way.  I will explain.

My rigid structure of right/wrong, just/unjust, acceptable/unacceptable, lead me to be a very strict parent.  I set extremely high standards for my children.  I took it very personally and felt like a failure when my child[ren] didn't act or treat people the way I was teaching.  I had emotional and anxiety ridden thoughts of the "end game", what kind of horrible person they would turn out to be if I didn't squash each unacceptable behavior immediately.  So I ended up correcting everything, thus making my sweet, sensitive, somewhat defiant little boy feel like he couldn't do anything right.

Couple that with the fact my oldest was very verbally advanced early on and able to express himself with words, I forgot the #1 rule of child development.  Behavior is communication.  If that is true, if behavior is communication (which it is), then what does that mean for behavior modification or control style of parenting?  If behavior is communication, then that means that children are telling us about what they are feeling or experiencing with their behavior.  And they have the right to do that, all feelings and experiences are valid.  By trying to "control" their behavior, we are censoring their communication with us, instead of helping them through whatever the situation is.  We are addressing the symptom, not the root cause.  [STICK WITH ME HERE, I'm not advocating that kids should get to do whatever they want.]

My revelation this week was this: it's not my job to control/modify my child's behavior, that's THEIR job.  My job is to lead by example, show them how to navigate and control their emotions by being in control of my own.  My job is to help them be emotionally healthy, while imparting a broad framework of important values to apply to their decisions for the rest of their lives and hold themselves accountable to.  If you take the approach of "modifying" or correcting every little behavior, but fail to reinforce the framework of values you use to decide was is and is not acceptable, then when they are later faced with a choice they have never encountered and you are not there to correct them, they may or may not be able to do the right thing.

Now, this new approach does not change my rigid sense of what is and is not acceptable.  It only changes the way I deliver that message.  Instead of rigidly enforcing dos and don'ts, a trap I fear many Christians fall into. I choose to operate in a space of grace, which is the greatest gift our faith has to offer the world.  I've always tried to give others grace & space to grow, but I'm not very good at being gracious with myself.  I was also not very gracious and understanding as a parent.  I am working on correcting both of these things, and being more gracious with myself and my children.  To do this, I focus on a few simple truths and strategies to guide my discipline approach with my kids.

1. Remind myself that they are kids.  Stop taking their behavior as a personal assault or predictor of their future.  In the moment, I remind myself that they are _ years old, and that this is normal behavior for a child.

2. Do not engage in arguments with my child.  I love them too much to argue.  Neither of us are happy with our relationship at the end.  Give them an answer.  If they argue, remind them of my answer and reason for it, then walk away.  The End.  This helps cut down on emotional capital spent on negative interactions.

3. Ignore negative attention-seeking behavior.  Give lots of praise and attention when they are acting appropriately.

4. Choose to address undesirable behaviors based on your overall character goals for your children.  The character goals that guide my parenting are kindness, respect, empathy, integrity, and self-responsibility.  So applying #3 & #4, I may choose to ignore my child jumping around the room.  But if they interrupt 2 people who are talking, I will remind them of our strategy of how to get someone's attention politely and wait to speak in order to be respectful.

5. Help them connect undesirable behavior back to your framework of values.  When a child talks back in a sarcastic or nasty way.  Instead of saying, "You don't get to talk to me that way" (a totally unenforceable statement, because we can't actually control what another person says).  I say something like, "You don't sound kind right now" if they are talking to a peer.  Or "You're not being very respectful" if they are speaking to an adult.  These statements take on the role of the first warning and gives them the opportunity to choose a different course or apologize.

6. Immediately address what is absolutely unacceptable.  Anything that crosses into the realm of abuse, be it physical, mental, or emotional, must be addressed as unacceptable.  Also anything that is dangerous for themselves or others (like darting into a parking lot without looking), must be addressed.  It can even be less serious, such as not washing your hands after you visit the bathroom.  That is not a choice, you either wash your hands or I will wash them for you.  There are non-negotiables in parenting and in life.  They have to learn that some things are "have to" and they don't get a choice, like it or not.

These concepts may sound very basic to you, but these are things I've struggled with on my journey as a parent. A lot of life is a cycle of expectations & disappointment. Honestly, parenting and discipline has not come as easy to me as I imagined it would.  It has shown me the parts of myself that really need work, by having them reflected back to me through my children.  That will knock you on your butt.  More than once I've thought, "Oh no, don't inherit THAT from me!"  My counselor recently pointed out that Levi and I might be on our journeys navigating our big tempers and tender hearts in parallel to each other.  I'm forced to do the work on myself, so that I can guide him away from the same pitfalls I've faced.  He's worth the work.  So am I.