Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Flourishing: Tenderness

Often, reading something thoughtful that someone else has posted brings me full circle to finally be able to express my own thoughts that have been percolating. That happened when I read these two items recently: this article on the importance of early child-adult attachment, and this beautiful post, called Loving a Child Through the Challenges of Life. Just seeing that second title made me think and wonder if I was ready for what might come at me in my own parenting future, and wish a little for more of that skill both for myself and for my own mother. Then I read the story and was very moved, inspired, and reminded that keeping a child close to us is both very hard but also very easy. I'll explain.

I've been thinking about the real power of love, and what it means to have unconditional love and attachment. I think it comes down to letting your kid know that they are more important than the rules, or the spilled milk, or the other moms at the park and what they think of the kid’s behavior.  Or being to church or soccer practice on time, or the broken dish.  The list can go on and on.  

There are so many ways, in our day-to-day lives, that we gradually and subtly (or not so subtly) let our children know that somehow all these other things are really more important than they are.  And then when they resist that feeling and demand our attention at inconvenient times, we fight with them and dictate laws to them, so that they're sure to comprehend that they come second to whatever 'important' priority we have right then. But there are other ways of setting those boundaries without diminishing our children.

My son, Ian, was for some reason particularly violent as a toddler and preschooler. I don't mean pretend play of guns or guts, but actual harming others. He was full of a lot of negative feelings (that's just the way he came, he'll always struggle with that some), and didn't know what to do with them. When he hit or pushed someone, the socially correct thing was to make him apologize and give him a stern correction.  But he was just getting worse and worse, and other parents would avoid even bringing their children around him (I found out later) and so I had some really desperate prayers about it.  

The answer I got was the exact opposite of social convention, but I was told so clearly that I did it anyway.  It was completely embarrassing to me, and often anger-provoking in the other mothers; but if Ian did something mean and physically hurtful, I would immediately gather him up in my arms and love him.  That had to be my response, and it had to be immediate, that was key.  

In fact, I'm going to repeat it: I had to immediately offer him all of my affection and attention instead of frustration and reprimand. After that, if we could try to smooth things over socially, that was fine, but often that was impossible.  Because if someone's little kiddo was crying and hurt from the stick my son hit them with, and that mom saw me act as if my child was the wounded one in need of comfort, that didn't usually go over so well. I'm grateful for those few moms who were willing to forgive anyway.

One of the other big turning points in my reaction to my son was not only my own prayer but Ian’s himself.  I don’t remember the words anymore, but it was the most tender, pleading, sincere prayer I’ve ever heard a kid that age give.  It's like he wasn't 3 or 4 years old, he was...ageless, his spirit itself was speaking purely. The scriptures tell us that "little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned" and that when Christ visited the Nephites, "he did loose [their children's] tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things". That was the experience we had during this prayer, and my husband and I locked eyes in amazement as our little boy poured his true, gentle heart out.

So I knew I couldn't ignore the answer I had been given. I knew my son's feelings were more important than his behavior, and that I could only change what he felt from me and not what he did. He wasn’t hitting because he didn’t know it was wrong, he was already trying so so so hard not to be 'bad'.  But I had been focused on being so absolutely consistent in my discipline, he just felt like there was no loophole, no mercy, that the more he hit the less he deserved love.  I realized that my techniques, which I had in many ways learned from my mom, unfortunately seemed like conditional love.  I learned that when he lost control and hit, he instantly knew he had done wrong without me telling him and was already putting that guilt and self-loathing in place in his little heart.  And then he had to apologize? And get a lecture and publicly grovel and be ashamed?  

I began to understand that his little heart was so amazingly tender and open to love, that the knowledge that he was more important than his mistakes would work miracles.  He already knew he made mistakes, he was just waiting for me to show whether or not I his mother thought more of him than that.

So I started hugging him as soon as he hit, and it worked.  It worked! He didn’t become perfect, but he changed dramatically and his little spirit shone so much more; I’m so thankful for that.  Similar experiences have occurred since then with each of my children, and it's taken a lot of practice and mistakes on my part to keep learning how to show the kind of love that communicates with each of them. Setting aside that anger and frustration and learning to replace it with love and affection right when the kid seems least deserving? That's beyond hard. But it is possible, I can testify of that, and it can even become second nature.  

I’m sure, of course, that I will continue to be stretched and tested as my children continue to grow.  But it has been worth it, worth it -- I think my family's greatest strength is our trust and affection for each other, and it's like a glowing jewel I carry in my heart with me always.

One other side tip -- we don't have any kind of timer in time-outs. If a child needs a little distance from a situation, I personally walk them to the bathroom and sit them down, express clearly that I can’t wait until they’re ready to come out and I can see them again, and that they can try again to [express in words/not hit/ask nicely/share].  The child gets to determine when they come out, knowing what you expect of them but also that they are missed and wanted. Every once in a while they'll come out before they're ready, or the opposite, they'll punish themselves and stay in too long and I get to go and lovingly ask why they’re in there so long and coax them out with a big hug/cuddle. But it’s awesome when I can manage a correction that mostly feels like I love them and want them the whole time.  That’s my goal.  If they’re full of too many negative emotions, it doesn’t matter what consequences you try to connect with their actions; they’re just going to remember how mad they felt, or how lonely, and they won’t recollect a thing about what came before, what they might have done wrong.  

1 comment:

  1. Kristin, I love this post. I somehow missed it until now. But you are amazing, an incredible mother, and a huge example to me. Thanks for sharing these very personal, very profound and inspiring things.