Thursday, March 22, 2012

A matter of the heart

Disclaimer: This is about parenting and about the gospel. I ask some questions in this post and I do NOT mean them to be rhetorical. I'm asking because I'm wanting to contemplate these things. Also, if anyone reads this, know that it's not directed at "you" I'm talking through these things and trying to understand them myself. I'm asking and examining and hopefully won't ever come to the "right answer" completely, because if I think I do then I've already failed by not continuing to grow and change as God teaches me. Also, my Dad one time told me that my Mom and him examined how they'd been parented and their goal was to improve on their experience and he said that I'd do the same some day when I had kids. When I ever talk about how I was parented or how someone else parents it's not to complain or say anything wrong about what they did. It's simply to learn.

Recently a mother of 8 told me about a conversation that she had with her fourth upon her graduation from highschool. She said that she apologized for scarring her daughter, because scars were inevitable. She said she hoped they didn't inflict too many, but knew they couldn't be avoided because we are all imperfect sinners.

It's true. The best we can do is to give as few scars as we can and admit when we've sinned and made mistakes. But this still leaves us with the question of how we can parent well to minimize the scars. Marriage and parenting (especially) have probably the greatest potential for us to be sanctified, because it tends to bring out our flaws in the worst ways. The question is if we are going to hold onto our image of being "right" or are we going to be teachable and let the pieces of iron around us sharpen us even as God uses us to sharpen them.

That said, this blog post is a lot of what I've been thinking through as God teaches me more and convicts me of my own flaws.

My husband and I came from very different homes. His father was Muslim and his mother was a Christian. His Dad was abusive and my husband suffered from chronic headaches because of stress as a little boy. His parents divorced when he was about 14, but coming from a broken home does not define who he is.

I came from a conservative Christian home. At times we tended more towards legalism (or at least I did from some of the things I was taught, though I don't think my parents meant me to take it all that way.) I've been hurt far more from Christians in different churches than by anyone else. Yet these things did not cause me to turn away from my faith.

He and I both came from places that could have caused us to turn away from God and rebel, so how did we turn out well? Should the glory go to a specific parenting style? No. Jesus saved us. While God used our parents and our circumstances He is the one who gets the glory for any good that we do. As a parent myself I am so relieved that God the Father can cover those times when I fail or make mistakes as a parent. The biggest mistake I could make would only be to not trust Him with my children. Especially as they grow older and start to become adults when I need to let go more and more.

The question still remains though of "what's my part" ? -- What's the best "method" to parenting? Is "Attachment parenting" the best way? Should I let them "cry it out"... ? Do I reason with my child or teach them to obey instantly? Do I spank them or do time-outs? Let me submit to you that all those methods aren't getting to the point. I can see in different circumstances how each could be valuable and if we don't recognize the useful parts of many methods I think we are looking at the wrong thing. Focusing too much on a parenting philosophy and not our children and our relationship with God the Father.

For a good year now I've been pouring online sermons into my ears as I do things around the house. Sermons that talk over and over and over again about Jesus and the gospel. In every way and in every part of the Bible it's all about Jesus. So as I've been listening to these I've been asking myself again and again, "How does God parent us?" There could be no other "better method" than how He parents us, right? Right. So lets think about this.

First off, lets start with the gospel.

He loved us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us"

Do our kids KNOW that we love them no matter what? Do they know that we love them even when they are disobedient and do bad things? Are we the kind of parent that pursues our child again and again even when they turn their back on us and what we've taught them? Are we on the road to being like the Father of the Prodigal son who welcomed his son back with open arms and even threw a party for him?

Recently, when I was having a hard time with Renna who was getting angry and sulky about something I was trying to teach her. She might have needed some sort of punishment, but at the time it felt like nothing I'd tried was really helping. It would seem to help and then the next day (or next hour) she would do the same thing again. You should have seen her face when (by the inspiration from the Holy Spirit as I silently prayed!) I said gently to her, "Renna I love you even when you do noddy things. I love you so much that I don't want to see you get hurt or hurt other people. That is why you need to obey me when I tell you not to do that. I love you, Renna. You can never do anything to make me not love you."

When I was saying this to her, her eyes brightened. It was as if her whole countenance lifted and she appeared to "get it" for a minute, and she was sorry and glad at the same time. Note: she didn't get away with anything she just understood that my motives were in love rather then condemnation.

I have to keep reminding both of my older girls this over and over again, and I need to grow in how I show them that I love them.

You see, at one point Lily actually told Renna (because she believed this herself) that if she wasn't good then we wouldn't love her! And really, how many kids believe this? We show our disapproval when they do something wrong and we show our delight when they do something we want them to do. We discipline them so that their actions and behaviors will be appropriate. In general, all parenting seems to fall into different ways of behavioral modification training. Any of the methods that I listed above can fail miserably in one way or another if our kids don't know and aren't reminded over and over and over again that everything we do is because we love them.

But is that really what God is doing for us? Some would say that God was more interested in our appearing godly, and they would slowly become legalistic and fall into bondage. "Our salvation is a gift of God, but our sanctification is all about what we do?" No.

God loved us while we were still sinners. Salvation is a gift, and after we are Christians it's not about appearing right or all about doing right. It's about our hearts that are made new.

How do we get to the heart of the matter with our kids? I've started to try to find the root cause of why my girls do something. Are they afraid? Angry? Selfish? Rather than punish Renna again for disobeying me about something, I needed to explain to her how she was only thinking about herself. What is selfishness and how can we think of other people first? What would happen if EVERYONE thought only about themselves and what they want? I need to have songs and verses for them to memorize about loving one another and talk about these things over and over again. Is this not what God does with us? Does he dole out spanking after spanking, yell, manipulate, threaten, do something to modify our outward behavior, or does he seek to change our heart? According to the Bible he loves us no matter what. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." Through belief in Jesus there is nothing keeping us away from God! Our sin, that can't come near a perfect and Holy God, isn't recognized because Jesus' blood covers it! This is AMAZING news!

This is the gospel of grace freely given to us.

How do we explain this gospel and live it out with our kids? We might be able to force them to obey us, but we can't make them love us or obey with a willing spirit. We need to pursue them and love them even (or especially) when they are being bad.
We love them by telling them we love them, but we also have to show it. We have to not only explain why we are asking them to do something (and this will really catch us up because sometimes it's easier to say "no" about something only because we don't want to be bothered to help them do it or be interrupted from what we want to do. Selfishness alert!) Pick your battles well. Don't make everything a big deal or a "no" out of habit.

Some people (wrongly) view God as the sort of Father to scowl at our sin, despise us for it in some way or another, judge us for every little wrong thing that we do. Does His judgement come down on us though? No, it came down on His own perfect Son who willingly gave his life up because of His great love for us.

Do we watch our kids for the slip ups so we can constantly jump on their backs about it? Do we punish them over accidents and spills? Do we lazily just say no and punish them for "not obeying" when we simply didn't want to teach them how to do something the right or safe way or pursue their hearts to find out why they are upset? All things to consider and examine in our lives as parents. And re-examine again and again! Asking each step of the way, "what does the gospel say? How does God parent us according to the Bible?"

I think the mistake that many Christian's make is not fully realizing the gospel again and again. The good news is all about how Jesus took our place and loves us as we are! We are made new creations and no longer WANT to do the same things that we did before. We WANT to do the things that God wants us to do. If a child knows he or she is loved unconditionally they will tend to want to do what we desire they do. They trust us.

They trust us when they know we love them and when we try to understand them.
Consistency is a GREAT thing, but before you punish your child's behavior do you ask yourself "Why?" they are acting that way? Are they tired? Hurt? Hungry? Sad? Do they need to get some energy out? Do we treat them like people or is our main goal to make them do what we want? Some times they misbehave because they are just being selfish or are dealing with some other sin. If your child is just angry though, it's good to look for the cause of that. Maybe I've "provoked them to anger" like the Bible tells Father's NOT to do. Maybe I need to be the one to apologize in that instance. Perhaps their anger stems from just being tired or poor diet or some project that they are trying to do that makes them frustrated. Ask yourself if you should respond with the "discipline and correct" right away or try to find out what's truly wrong and then deal with it.

When Lily wasn't even 2 yet there was a moment when we needed to leave the park and she completely freaked out. Threw herself screaming on the grass and just over-all pitched the biggest fit she'd ever thrown. I knew she was tired and that added to her emotions, but (while this was a bit embarrassing for me) I pursued her in the middle of that fit. Helped her calm down and TALK to me. What did she want? Turns out she wanted to go down the slide one more time or something. My goal at that point was to get her to ask appropriately. Her desire wasn't wrong and we weren't in a terrible hurry. The problem wasn't that she wasn't doing exactly what I said we needed to do (which was to go home) the problem was how she tried to communicate her desires.

We HAVE to ask these questions of our kids! If we don't then we are simply modifying their behavior, but not truly touching their hearts and training them to be who God has designed them to be (extrovertedness or type-A-ness or Introspectiveness or whatever they happen to be bent towards.)

Just as God does with us, we need to show them in every way that we love them. This doesn't mean that we let them get away with dangerous things! This doesn't mean that we don't teach them to obey us (Again ask, how does God parent us?) He listens to us. He understands us inside and out. He's available. He's aware and protective. He gives us freedoms and responsibilities. If we don't start with trying to understand what our child's perspective is at a difficult point, then we won't know how to help and guide and correct them.
I'm afraid that if we skip trying to know our kids (and keep getting to know them as they grow!) and simply work on "fixing" them then they will feel like we are manipulating them and (naturally) begin to resent us. But is our job as parents to "fix" our kids? A great book called "Different Children Different Needs" talks about how weaknesses are often strengths pushed too far. For example, think of someone that is decisive and knows what they want this is a good thing, but taken too far can be overbearing and manipulative. Why would God give certain strengths and personality bents to each of us when we are born and then desire that we be forced into a mold that doesn't fit us? As parents, our goal should be to guide our children to become who God has made them to be. What is that? I don't know yet. I can see some of their strengths however even at the young age they are now.

My littlest is only 11 months and already is sympathetic and empathetic to the hurts or distresses of other people. Renna is strong and decisive. Lily is helpful and forgiving. These are such great things! But how do I react when my littlest won't stop fussing or insists on being held for what appear to be silly reasons (the balloons are EATING her older sisters!).. or Renna decides to go a direction that the rest of the family is NOT going and I have to somehow get her to go with us. Or how Lily helps Renna so much that Renna still acts like a baby at times and forgives her when Renna hits her so that I don't realize what's been going on till it's too late.
Yes, how DO I react!? And that's what I have to ask myself when I evaluate a dozen teachable moments or a frustrating hour of grocery store shopping or another day of breaking up fights every few hours. How does God parent us? He loves even when we are bad, he pursues us even when we continue to not listen, and he is slow to become angry.

I'm not naturally a very patient person, yet what is the first definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13:4? "Love is patient, love is kind..." How can I be more patient and kinder to my children? When I go the "behavioral modification" route (any parenting method can turn into that) then am I not just trying to find the quickest way to "fix" things? Do I discipline them because they truly have sinned and are unrepentant or because I'm impatient with them.

God doesn't do that. He's long-suffering and slow to become angry. He doesn't manipulate us into right actions or manipulate us into loving him. He chases after us and wins our hearts. He loves us while we are still sinners and guides us to holiness because he wants so much more for us than the pain and folly of sin.

I had an opportunity just last night before bed to illustrate to my older girls how God looks at our sin. I talked to them about something that Grace did and how we all viewed it. Here's the story.

The other day Grace discovered the bathroom door open and she was so fast that I didn't catch her in there till I heard some splashing. I ran in to find her EATING the toilet paper out of the NOT FLUSHED toilet! *GROOOOSSSS* Of course the girls had forgotten to flush it or close the lid, but fortunately there wasn't poo in the toilet! Still though. So disgusting. My older two are old enough to get just how gross this moment was, but Gracie didn't know why I wouldn't let her play in the fun water! Why was Mommy trying to wash out the baby's mouth and scrub her hands and keep saying "YUCK"? (I'm sure the baby was pondering this.) Well, tonight when I was talking to the girls about sin. I explained that God loves us so much that he wants the best for us. Just like how I love Grace so much that I don't want her eating out of the toilet water! I want to give her yummy food and fresh water and later other fun drinks like lemon-aid and root-beer! Gracie is too young to understand and thinks that I'm taking something fun away from her, but she doesn't realize that I want amazingly BETTER things for her than water from the toilet. I told them that they needed to trust me when I tell them that they shouldn't do something and that as they get older God will guide them to know what they should or shouldn't do. I said that eating out of the toilet water is sort of how God views our sin. It's about how He loves us and wants the best for us and when we make sinful choices it's gross to him. He doesn't want to take our fun and joy away he wants us to have better fun and more joy with fresh clean water instead of the toilet water.

If I desire to give my children good things and am a flawed sinner, how much more is that true about a perfect and Holy God who is our Father through Jesus Christ.

Here's a good question that goes along with that. When God gives us a gift, how would He want us to react? I give my child a bike for Christmas and she reacts with an, "I really wanted the OTHER bike!" Are we discontent with what He's given us? Another reaction could be, "Wow, that's amazing, but I can't ride it. It's too much. I'll deny myself the privilege of using this bike. I'll give it away because that's the 'godly' thing to do." Again, the person giving the gift wouldn't be so thrilled with that response. "This is GREAT! I'll use it ALL the time. I'll never do anything else! I'll ride so hard that the tire falls off and I hurt myself with it!" Yep, still not good. How about this one. "I love it! Thank you, I'm really going to enjoy this." Why don't we enjoy what we have? Why can't we enjoy what God has given to us?

Do we truly appreciate our kids and their unique (or sometimes difficult) personalities? The natural response is, "OF COURSE I do!" Oh really, how about at 2 in the morning when they wake up and have turned all the lights on in the house and put a movie on for themselves. All because they had a wet bed or wet diaper and didn't tell you about it. How about those times when they spill their drink into the DVD player and you are suddenly out the $100 or so that you just spent on it. Really, pick a time you've gotten super angry at one of your kids and ask yourself if you were appreciating who they were or were you asking "WHY ME?" To one thing or another. We all have those moments and generally laugh about them later, but at the time... not so much.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 -- "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.

"A bad parent is one that is never available for teachable moments." A child wants to show their parent something that they made or ask them about something that they are bothered about. It's not that we should be there for them when they need us. It's our privilege. I'm quite convicted at this moment because I am with my kids almost all the time and it's easy to start thinking how I need my own space and am tempted to put them off when they ask for something or want to play with me. It IS true that we need to get away and recharge, but I've noticed that when I think too much about needing my own time I don't take the opportunities to enjoy them and help them right where we are. Do I let them interrupt something that I'm doing or do I get mad about it or just ignore them as long as I can? You never know when you'll have a teachable moment and we've got to spend a LOT of "quantity time" to get any "quality time."


Final thought. It seems too easy as humans to lean too far towards too much discipline or too little, but if we keep coming back to the gospel and keep coming back to asking how Jesus loves us, then we can do no more. As with every other part of our lives as Christians it's all about coming back again and again to the gospel and to Jesus. Don't get stuck looking at the methods when what we need is to look continually at our Savior.


lenorediviney said...

I'm humbled. thanks for sharing. love you! oh and I want to be the first to wish you Happy Birthday this weekend! hee hee

Natalie Minnich said...

my sister is a turkey! I specifically told her she could NOT wish you happy birthday before me!!! Gah! This is why I prefer sister-in-laws! ;)