The proverb says, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Every new mother and father is handed a person of untold potential. The burden of responsibility we feel can be oppressive. However, if we rise to the challenge, for the love of the child, we will unlock that potential. The first few years of a child’s life requires a parent’s greatest attention and the most work. Those early years are tough, little kids are demanding. Thankfully they come cute or we would not be so quick to forgive their monstrous behavior. During those early years the child develops his sense of self, he learns to deal with emotions and face his fears, he develops empathy, and is socialized. Or, on the contrary, he fails to gain self-worth or personality, he represses or lashes out emotionally, he develops anxiety as he faces the unknown, he becomes apathetic to others, and is unsure how to interact appropriately. Young children are largely at the mercy of their parents.
As we begin our journey with each child we need to allow our innate parental love to drive us to sacrifice all other “goods” for the greatest good – raising a strong child. This is when we must put in the time and energy in devising the best parenting practices for each unique child. A sensitive child will need a softer touch than a determined child. A serious-minded child will need more respect and independence than a fun-loving child. As we strive, first and foremost, for the good of each child, rather than creating the child we desire, we will be guided in our parenting tactics and we will find joy in seeing our children thrive. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” Frederick Douglas
“They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”
-A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
In his book, A Brave New World, Huxley describes a new civilization where all things are adapted and conditioned in citizens to allow for perpetual happiness and stability. Every physical impulse is immediately gratified so passion cannot develop, every obstacle to comfort is removed, even old age is eradicated. Negative emotions are dulled by “Soma” – a drug to numb the senses. The spirit is never allowed to interrupt the distractions of the body – and so God “manifests Himself as an absence” rather than a presence. The Chief Controller of this “Brave New World” declared, “God isn’t compatible with universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery, and medicine, and happiness.”
In modern society we increasingly see happiness and stability as exalted to the place of supreme Good. Our physical impulses, emotions, and desires must be satisfied, and these physical distractions often impede our ability to contemplate our purpose. However, to discover the true reality of our existence, even in youth, we must “not walk according to the flesh but according the the Spirit,” Romans 8:4. We have to choose to see truth and beauty as more important than self-satisfaction. If we resist the temptation to seek momentary happiness no matter the cost, if we accept the responsibilities of progression and sacrifice, our eyes become open to the Ultimate source of joy and fulfillment. This choice will lead to a life less stable and contented that that of the citizens of Huxley’s civilization, but one with access to truth, beauty, and progress not found in satisfied ease. The reality we discover may reveal that the very “act of striving for truth and beauty is where happiness resides.”
“Speak the truth…Start listening to what you say, and feeling what you say. Pay attention to whether what you’re saying makes you feel stronger or weaker. If it makes you feel weaker than you should stop saying it right away. See if you can reformulate your words so that when you restate them that feeling of integration and integrity reappears.” Dr. Peterson
Speaking the truth brings strength, stability, and alignment. As we attempt to be completely honest with ourselves and others, suffering diminishes and we see our purpose more clearly. There is no scrambling to remember white lies we may have spoke or false impressions we may have given. There is no guilt at misleading others with a disingenuous facade. If we practice speaking the truth and recognizing the truth, we will forgo much of the stress, confusion, and guilt in our lives.
Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Tragedy befalls us all. Suffering is one promise life always keeps. There are times when we don’t see how the sun could possibly shine again. I would like to share the story of two women, whose experiences give us insight into how to move toward a brighter future when we find ourselves in desperate circumstances. Their lives give us hope that we can find happiness and purpose despite, and sometimes even because of, our adversity. Light can be found in the midst darkness.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”*
Sacrifice of Comfort and Well-Earned Self-Pity
As a young girl, Anne Sullivan was already well-acquainted with grief. At age five she contracted a painful eye infection which took most of her sight. Her mother died leaving her with her abusive father. Her father soon abandoned her and her brother to an overcrowded and filthy almshouse where her younger brother soon died. She said her experience at Tewksbury Almshouse left her seeing life as “primarily cruel and bitter.” She became prone to violent outbursts and terrors. Through stubborn persistence she gained admittance to school but became a defiant student and was nicknamed Miss Spitfire. Despite her hardships and temper, she graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind as class valedictorian. She was soon recommended as the teacher to an exceptionally difficult six-year-old girl in Alabama, Helen Keller.
Helen had been just 18 months old when she contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf. She faced a lifetime of darkness, silence, and isolation. Despite a loving family and remarkable intelligence, Helen became extremely frustrated and violent due to her inability to make sense of her surroundings. She behaved “like a wild animal” and her parents were at a loss of how to handle her. Anne Sullivan was to be her savior, but not without great sacrifice.
In this clip from The Miracle Worker, you will see the stubbornness of both teacher and student brilliantly portrayed. Anne was no pushover; she knew what had to be done – she had to get Helen to understand the concept of language. She knew Helen would live life wandering aimlessly in the dark until she came to that realization. Anne was willing to do whatever it took so Helen could gain that understanding. (Clip 2:30)
Anne’s efforts to tame this wild child were met with opposition from Helen’s indulgent parents and physical violence from Helen. Because of Anne’s own stubborn and aggressive nature she understood Helen and she had the temperament to do what it took. It was not a pleasant experience at the beginning. Helen “hit, pinched and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth. [Anne] finally gained control by moving with [Helen] into a small cottage on the Kellers’ property.” Anne’s daily efforts to teach Helen were met with anger and misunderstanding from an unruly and ungrateful child. Anne likely ended her days feeling unrewarded and unappreciated, yet she persevered. Anne later said, “People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved. ” Anne was willing to sacrifice her comfort, she was willing to be mistreated and unloved, because of the potential she saw in Helen.
But the young Helen also had to sacrifice. She had a very well-earned victim card. She had an inexhaustible list of justified excuses, bitterness, and anger. No one would have blamed her for achieving very little. She could have continued roaming the rooms, grunting and eating off strangers plates – that was the easier and understandable path. But eventually Helen choose instead to see hope and purpose in the darkness and silence of her life. “I have made my limitations tools of learning and true joy.”
These women did not ask what was fair or what they were owed; instead they began to climb out of darkness. How could Anne find trust and love when her life had only been suffering and neglect? How could Helen make sense of the world when all she experienced was unintelligible? They saw a purpose greater than their own momentary desires and they ultimately found happiness and peace in that pursuit. “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” For both women, the alternative to their sacrifices only led to more misery and suffering. Their path of sacrifice was difficult and required a transformation of their weaknesses into strengths. Their shared stubborn, aggressive, and disagreeable natures – developed in their suffering – had to be purposefully harnessed and refined to achieve true greatness.
Proper Love Exemplified
“When Queen Victoria of England pinned one of England’s highest awards on Helen Keller, she asked [her], ‘How do you account for your remarkable accomplishment in life? How do you explain the fact that even though you were both blind and deaf, you were able to accomplish so much?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, Helen Keller said, “If it had not been for Anne Sullivan, the name of Helen Keller would have remained unknown.’” (Vital Speeches of the Day, p. 42).
Anne Sullivan, “Miss Spitfire”, with her definite and contrary nature, was able to reveal the true Helen Keller; she helped her transcend the willful and uncooperative child and become the inspiration of millions. Anne did not pity Helen; she did not accept her weaknesses because of her hardships. She “willed the good” of Helen more than her own, or Helen’s, momentary comfort. This scene of Anne attempting to train Helen to use good table manners shows her determination and dedication to getting the “good” out of Helen. (Clip 6:12)
What is love? Love is compassion and acceptance. But love is much more than just this. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing the good of the other”. Love is the ability to look inside a tormented soul and see the possibilities to be found there – the potential for goodness, and happiness, and strength. Today’s mantras are “You are perfect just the way you are”, “Don’t change for anyone”, “Happiness is the goal”. There is some truth in these words, but there is much greater truth to be found outside of them. If we are willing to leave the world self-esteem and enjoyment and push into the darkness and uncertainty of our own discomfort, we may find a love and strength much more powerful than mere acceptance. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Anne Sullivan didn’t accept Helen Keller as-is. She saw her aggression, her disobedience, her willfulness, as impediments to achieving a brilliant potential. Dr. Jordan Peterson recently shared the perspective he took as a psychotherapist, and one we may take towards those we “love”, “(Famous psychologist Carl) Rogers said you have to have unconditional love for your client…and I say, No! I have unconditional positive regard for the part of my client that is striving toward the light and I am an enemy against the part that is trying to drag that person down.”
Anne was not concerned for Helen’s comfort – comfort was keeping her from progression. Anne had to make Helen uncomfortable enough that she was forced to find a new path forward. As the clip above shows, this was a painful and harsh experience – it didn’t look a lot like the “love” of compassion and acceptance, it looked like punishment, it looked like suffering. But Anne had faith, she knew that if Helen could simply grasp language, then she could see her ultimate potential, a potential full of hope, understanding, and influence.
In this incredibly emotional scene, Helen’s eyes are opened to language. The pieces finally fit together in her mind and she understands. As she discovers the staggering reality of the gift Anne has given her she is filled with Love for her teacher. She later recounted this moment, “‘Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten … and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object … I touched seemed to quiver with life.” (Clip 6:12)
Not only did Anne’s love produce a miracle in Helen’s life, but Helen’s love for Anne transformed her teacher. Anne was able to find peace and appreciation in her friendship with Helen that she had never experienced. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan became inseparable and were companions for 49 years. “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.”
Sacrifice + Love = Hope
Throughout her long life Helen Keller faced each situation in physical darkness and silence. She could have remained insular and protective. Instead she was the first blind/deaf person to graduate from university, she wrote several books, became an influential activist, public speaker, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was named one of the most influential people of the 20th century. She was determined to find joy and meaning despite her physical limitations. “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I am in, therein to be content.”
Perhaps the memory of her pathetic state before that remarkable moment at the water pump kept her always conscious of her need for gratitude. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” Progressing onward, towards a great purpose – sacrificing our selfish desires and excuses for the love of someone or something – will always create a sense of optimism and hope. Self-pity and bitterness are left behind and we are hopeful for what lies ahead. We have gained confidence in our ability to overcome because we have done it before, and we know what it takes.
We all can feel blind and powerless – like six-year-old Helen Keller. We may be groping in the dark for happiness and fulfillment, completely oblivious to the plans or purposes of our Teacher. We can choose to dwell on our limitations, or be content in our inadequacies – but our Teacher sees our potential. Sometimes the lessons He gives are incomprehensible to us; they may frustrate us and cause us to question His wisdom and love. Despite our lack of appreciation, He will keep working with us until we finally come to that great Understanding- when we realize what it all means and what we could be. Then our sacrifice of self will be insignificant to the majesty of our newfound life of hope and purpose.
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” 1 Corintians 2:9
*Quotes by Helen Keller unless otherwise indicated.
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Despite the lack of respect many fathers receive from our modern culture, Fathers are, in some ways, more important to the development of a strong and resilient generation than mothers (link here). They also bear the incredible responsibility of modeling a child’s view of another Father, our Father in Heaven. If our father is kind and patient, we know that our Heavenly Father must be as well. If our father is harsh and unforgiving, we may begin to believe God is also thus. If our father is absent, we may doubt the existence of any loving Father to protect us. George MacDonald said, “Words have an awesome impact. The impression made by a father’s voice can set in motion an entire trend of life.” The words of a father, the way he conducts his life, the way treats their mother, will frame his children’s lives, and through him the future of the world. Thank you to all the fathers who often unnoticed and unappreciated, sacrifice themselves for their families.
“Father!—To God Himself we cannot give a holier name.” –William Wordsworth
When our first kid was on the way, my wife and I were full of naive excitement and apprehension. We spent a lot of time and energy choosing names, painting the nursery, making plans, and predetermining every aspect of how we’d bring our baby girl into the world. When my wife was about 20 weeks along, the doctors discovered that our new baby had a serious, potentially fatal, heart defect. In order to have a chance at surviving, the baby would need a major open-heart surgery. Immediately, our nervous excitement became chaotic dread.
Shortly before her due date, my wife was devastated to learn that the baby would be whisked away by doctors immediately after she was delivered to be placed on life support. This was particularly hard on her. The doctor agreed to let my wife give the baby one kiss before they took her away. We knew this might be the only kiss my wife would give our little girl during her life. As this bleak reality set in, my wife turned to me and said “You go with the baby. Don’t take your eyes off her. Stay with her no matter what!”
I suddenly felt a transformation. I was still afraid, but I was no longer a passive observer to the drama that was about to unfold. It was now up to me to provide protection, comfort, bonding, and love to this little girl in the critical first moments of her life. I could also feel that my wife was relying on me, trusting me, turning her most precious possession over to me. Along with fear, I felt a purpose. Fear with a purpose feels a lot better than fear alone. This responsibility was a gift from my wife.
A few days after she was born, they performed the surgery. It was 7 hours long and our little girl’s heart was stopped for 3 of those hours. After the operation, she was in extreme peril. The surgical team was crowded in her little room, refusing to go home in case she crashed. There was only enough space for one parent to sit in the corner and watch. With great difficulty, my wife wisely turned these critical hours over to me. There was a real chance these would be the last hours of our little baby’s life. But my wife knew and showed me that she knew that my fatherhood was equal to her motherhood. As hard as it was, she let me act not only as the protector of our child, but as her hero and full partner in parenting. This was an amazing start to fatherhood.
I believe a major part of the bond a man feels for his children comes as a result of his relationship with their mother. Sadly, many fathers walk away from their children when a marriage breaks up because the bond has been severed. Even in stable marriages, the father’s bond can be weakened when the mother doesn’t foster the bond between father and child. When I see a father who is not especially helpful and engaged with his kids, I almost always see a mother who is mistrustful, overly particular, and critical. Both parties likely bear some blame for this dynamic.
I think the moms usually have good intentions — they want their kids to eat right, look right, play safely, avoid all risks. And they probably think they are doing a favor to the husband by providing instructions. But a mother trying to control every aspect of her children’s care is not signaling her trust and admiration for her partner’s role as a father. Or she may have a darker agenda. She may have contempt for her husband and feel threatened when she sees her children forming a bond with someone else. The “devouring mother” doesn’t just devour her children — she devours their father too.
The disengaged father might feel that being lazy is his best choice because whatever he tries is wrong, disappointing, and counterproductive. He is failing to adopt the responsibility presented to him. He is to blame for this. But it is harder to adopt responsibility when it doesn’t seem like you get any credit for it. A father may even resent his wife for criticizing him when his efforts to help fall below her standards. As Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “If you really want to create misery, punish someone when they do something good. That will ensure they never try again.” Sadly, I know men who have bitterly resolved to prove to their wives how useless they can be with the kids because they felt slighted when their effort resulted in criticism.
The popular narrative is that there should be more equality between men and women in child rearing. I think this is a good development from the (probably apocryphal) 1950’s “I don’t change diapers” attitude. Fathers can and should adopt as much responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children as they possibly can. Caring for children is one of the most meaningful things a person can do and men who fail to take that chance when they have it will pay for it dearly. Men get told a lot that they should be better fathers. Some women complain, demand, or dictate. They tell their partners that they owe them or compare their burden with their husband’s. Some women are picky about how the husband interacts with the kids. They might correct him (often in front of the kids) and then resentfully say “ugh, I will just do it myself.” This kind of attitude can rot the bond between the father and his kids.
Men thrive when they are called to adventure. We’re all familiar with the motif of the hero who goes forth to slay the dragon, save the woman, and get the gold. Moms, do you frame caring for child that way to your husband? Do you let him know that every time he changes a diaper, he has bravely met a horrible beast? That when he soothes a crying baby, he’s used his talents to gain a treasure? That when he gets up with a sick kid at night, then goes to work the next day, he is climbing Everest in your eyes? That he is a hero to you every time? Do you let him figure things out for himself so that his victories are his? Do you let go of enough so that he can use his creativity and ambition in the way he interacts with the kids?
Here’s an experiment. Tell your husband you want to do a girls night and ask him if he wouldn’t mind running the show for a few hours. When the time comes, walk out of the house without saying anything. Or just say “Thanks! I’m so excited to have some time with my friends.” Resist the urge to give instructions. Don’t tell him the bedtime routine. Don’t tell him to keep them out of the street. If he asks what to feed them for dinner say “It’s up to you!” Don’t text him to see how things are going. Just walk away. And when you get back, don’t ask how things went. Just tell him how much fun you had and then go on and on about what a great dad he is. Tell him that you told your friends how great he was. Tell him you told your mom what an awesome dad he is– he will really like that.
You might be surprised, but I promise your kids will survive. They’ll probably eat more sugar and watch more TV than you want, but they’ll survive. The real shock might be the effect that has on your husband. See what happens when you show him that you trust him. You will be presenting him with a challenge that he can solve. When he succeeds, he will feel like he has accomplished something and most importantly, gained the esteem of his wife. This will bond him to you. It will bond him to your kids. That day in the hospital, when my wife turned our little girl over to me, it cemented me to them both. Fatherhood became an adventure and I was the hero of the story.
“The best thing about not having children is that you can go on believing that you’re a good person.” Fay Weldon.
Children can bring out the worst in us, but also potentially the best. Because of children’s ability to expose our weaknesses, parents are given a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge our faults and attempt to change them. It is important to recognize our own “dark side” so we can refine ourselves. Change is extremely difficult and can even seem impossible – however the love we have for our children (and desire to not screw them up) is one of the best motivators for personal progression. In the short clip below Dr. Peterson helps us recognize our own dark potential in parenting, and how we can use this truth to teach our children.
*His rule, “Don’t allow your children to do anything that makes you dislike them” sounds harsh but there is great truth in it. However, it is important to note that the application of this rule is dependent on the maturity and progression of the parent. If a parent “dislikes” harmless and appropriate behavior in their children then he/she is not ready for its application. Clip 3:48
Many of us moms may be picturing the nine weeks of summer before us with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Having our beloved children home all day is an “awesome” opportunity – we get the freedom to plan our own adventures; but we also have to, plan our own adventures. We have to entertain our kids for 13+ hours a day and face the guilt of potentially doing it wrong. In past summers I have found myself getting snippy with the kids by the end of the day – too much noise, too many fights, too much chaos. I am often disappointed by my irritability with my children, I never want my children to doubt that I truly enjoy their company. When they are grown, I want them to remember me not as just a good mother, but a pleasant mother. My own mother raised seven children and learned a lot of difficult lessons along the way. I asked her to relate her experience in improving her own interactions with her children and making her relationships with them pleasant – even through the long days of summer.
From our Guest Blogger, Jana Flake
When I was in the trenches of young motherhood, I noticed that I had turned into a negative person. I had read a book by psychologist, John Gottman, which described the necessity of the 5 to 1 ratio for a happy relationship. For every negative statement towards your spouse, or child, you need five positive ones, to keep the relationship flourishing. I realized that I probably had that ratio flipped. I became weary of the sound of my own irritation. I often spoke to my children in annoyance, telling them to do something, to hurry up, to fix something they had done incorrectly, or to stop doing something. One day I had a conversation with my eldest daughter who was deciding what to do about college and her future. I asked her if she wanted to be a wife and mother and she quite assuredly said, “Why would I want to do that? You aren’t having any fun at it.” That response really woke me up to how I was being perceived by my daughter. I loved my children; they were everything to me, but the daily communication of that love was getting lost. I had come from a long line of negative, worrying women and I didn’t want to pass those traits onto my children. My daughter’s statement was the catalyst that put me on a path of educating myself on parenting and communication, which resulted in a happier life for me, my husband, and children. Here are a few of the most important things I learned and applied in my parenting which I believe helped me to be more pleasant.
It’s the relationship that counts
I noticed that whenever one of my children needed discipline, I was always very negative and often created distance between us by the way I talked to him/her. William Glasser, a psychiatrist and author of Choice Theory recommends that whenever we are facing a difficult situation with our child, we should ask ourselves, “If I do or say this, will we be closer or farther apart? You need to do what you can to keep close to your child. The relationship should take precedence over always being ‘right’. Establishing trust means that there is nothing the children can say or do that will persuade you to reject them.” I decided to think before reacting in stressful situations, to reflect on how I could help my child solve the problem in a respectful way. I realized that if I was intentional in my parenting, I could discipline my children and not hurt the relationship. They might not be happy with me, but because we had worked out potential problem areas, solutions, and consequences in advance -they would not be sulking in their rooms thinking I had treated them unjustly. When it came right down to it, most of my annoyance and harshness came because I was thinking of myself and not my child. William Glasser said, “Few of us are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us control over them, our relationship. Don’t choose to do anything with a child whom you want to grow up to be happy, successful, and close to you, that you believe will increase the distance between you.”
Create a No-Problem Area with each unique child
When I was working with at-risk high school students, I would often have their parents and student in my office trying to figure out how to help the teenager get serious about their deteriorating behavior. After assessing the problem, I would ask the parents what they did with their son/daughter in the “no problem” area. This is a philosophy of Dr. Philip Osborne (Parenting in the 90’s) that has the potential, if implemented by parents, to change their students’ lives as well as their relationships with them. There are four problem areas of interaction between parents and children: parent’s problem (“Clean your room”), child’s problem (“My friend won’t speak to me”), mutual problem (“You need to study so you will pass this class”), and the no-problem area (problems are not the issue – relationship is). I would ask the parents to create a safe space where they could relate to their child in an enjoyable and meaningful way where no areas of conflict were discussed. I noticed that most parents knew they needed “bonding-time” with their kids like going fishing, fixing a car, playing sports, going shopping, etc. but most of the time they would be talking about their child’s problems. I would encourage the parents to find some time when they could just enjoy being with their child. It needed to be a mutually enjoyable experience so the child didn’t feel like a “project”. As a mother I would often take one my children with me when I had errands to run, just to talk. My husband could overcome a dispute with his sons just playing sports with them – never talking about the issues of conflict. It was almost magical to watch. We have interests and talents which bring us great joy. Choose one of these interests that line up with your child’s nature and make this your way of playing and bonding with your child. If you love cooking – teach your child to cook. If you love reading – read with your child. If you love travel – plan a trip with your child. These areas of common interest will be the important “no-problem” zones. These moments with your child will be a safe haven in your relationship when hardships come and you and your child can share your joint-love of this interest throughout your lives.
Look to understand what is behind their behavior
While pursuing my Master’s Degree in Psychology I did an internship in Germany with Dr. James Barton. He explained to me that all behavior a child exhibits is normal if you just understand the world they are living in. That idea has stopped me short many times in my life when I have a knee-jerk reaction to another person’s negative behavior. To help understand the child’s world, Dr. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline maintains that most negative behavior in children can be understood if we look at their world and what needs they are trying to meet. The goal of a child is to belong and to be loved. Sometimes they will do behaviors that seem to be the opposite of that but if we look beneath the behavior, we can understand their world. Dr. Nelson puts these behaviors in four categories: negative attention (No one is paying attention to me, I will get their attention); misguided power (No one listens to me around here; I have no voice or control; you can’t make me do it); revenge (I’ll get even, I will make my sister cry); and assumed inadequacy (Oh, it’s just not worth it, things will never change; I am just not worth it). I would ask myself when a negative behavior would come up: “Does he need some of my time?” “Is she feeling like she has no control over her life?” “Why is she trying to get back at me?” “Is he feeling like he is not good enough?” If I looked beyond the behavior to what the child was really saying, it helped me calm down and use my problem-solving skills rather than my negative emotion to respond appropriately. Again, getting myself out of the picture helped. (Link to a helpful chart on what drives our children’s negative behavior by Dr. Jane Nelson.)
As I became more mindful of how I spoke to my children and learned to apply these concepts, I began to be a more pleasant mother. I started to look for opportunities to bond with a particular child and spend just a few minutes one-on-one with them and enjoy their companionship. Before I began this re-education, most of my interaction with my children involved speaking to them about a problem. I started to have more fun with them. I had been too serious and over-focused on the tasks of running a household. I had missed much of the joys of relationship. As I look back at the pictures of myself and children before my “awakening” I regret the good times I missed. My daughter’s blunt rejection of the prospect of being a mother was my motivation to change. It must have worked, she now has a large and happy family of her own.
“I walked a mile with pleasure; She chatted all the way, But left me none the wiser, For what she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow, And ne’er a word said she; But oh, the things I learned from her, When sorrow walked with me.” – Robert Browning Hamilton
Modern philosophy tells us to avoid pain and hardship at all costs, and we are happy to oblige. However, a life devoid of difficulty has no power to transform us into a greater version of ourselves. True confidence comes in overcoming a challenge and standing bravely in face of hardship. Along with joy, parenthood brings adversity we may otherwise avoid, and with it many opportunities for change and growth. If we can be grateful for these wisdom-producing tribulations, and not just the love and joy our children bring, we can deepen our experience as a parent. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
“The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
The quest for “more” may bring purpose and pleasure to some, but the desire is ultimately never satisfied. We are often left longing for a greater purpose – one which creates rather than demands. If instead of focusing our energy on material desires, we turn our attention to raising a righteous posterity, relieving the suffering of others, and the development of our own character, we may find true freedom. We will also give our children an example worth emulating, preventing the further moral disintegration Dostoevsky describes.