When one of our sons was about 4 years old, we went through an incredibly challenging season.
His angelic behavior as a baby had melted into mayhem, and we were doing everything we could think to do.
When he was a baby, I would gratefully tell inquiring friends, “As long as I keep him to his schedule and swaddle him for sleep, he does great! Naps great! Plays great! Eats great!” Little did I realize that his love for routine and predictability would make his toddler and preschool years nearly unbearable. Life is regularly beyond our control, and rarely goes according to our plans as adults, let alone the plans of a child. It became clear that he was easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli as well, which contributed to so much of his frustration.
As his mind developed, so did the strength of his opinions and the ferocity of his methods to try to convince us. He seemed to have awareness of what was appropriate in public. He rarely caused trouble in front of others or for others in charge, but at home, he would succumb to outrageous tantrums. The color of the cup. The portion size of oatmeal. The positioning of a chair. The timing of each activity. Temperature of bath water. The amount of toothpaste to use. It continued even into the night.
He would come into our room in the middle of the night, distraught and yelling at me, begging me to help him with language that was hard to understand. Maybe his sock had twisted. Maybe his pillow wasn’t laying the way it should. Maybe the door hadn’t been left open to the right degree. Maybe he needed his water bottle filled to a particular line. I remember thinking, “Should I take him to a specialist and get him a diagnosis? This has got to be something.”
I was becoming increasingly overwhelmed, and truthfully, angry and resentful.
I tried becoming even more strict. The advice paraded in my mind, “You have to be consistent. You can’t let children win in a power struggle. You have to be the one in charge.”
I was like a rock. Our boundaries and disciplines were unyielding.
His freak-outs continued and his heart was like a rock towards me. He wouldn’t cry when he got in trouble. He would just glare at me with cold eyes.
I came across some instruction in developmental theory regarding children. (it is called “Hold Onto Your Children”, by Dr. Gordon Neufeld.) The book was so intuitive and hopeful. More than that – though the content was technically non-spiritual - it was the most Bible-congruent parenting material that I had ever read.
Reading that book led me to dive into further education in 2016-2017. Here were some of giant take-aways from that course:
Maturity is a natural process, but it is not inevitable.
We all know people who have grown older, but have not grown up. (Hopefully we are not counted among that number.) We could ask, “what really IS maturity? Is it the ability to just parrot the right thing at the right moment? Is it doing what we are told?” No.
Maturity is multi-faceted and includes:
- the ability to stay true to ourselves (our personality, our convictions, our preferences) even when surrounded by those different than us
- the ability to adapt when we must, to be resilient under pressure, and to emotionally accept the things that we cannot change, not allowing our hearts to harden or sour.
- the ability to let creativity, innovation and curiosity burst out of us, for its own sake, not for performance or to gain validation.
Doesn’t that sound so much richer than just having children who do what they are told?
There are no quick-fixes to maturity. Behavior modification can work for a day, but it can also be undone in a day. True maturation takes time.
The goal is not for children who remember to say “thank you” without fail. The goal is to have children who are grateful.
The goal is not to just get our kids to say they are sorry when they hurt someone; we actually want them to feel empathy.
That is an inside job, and we cannot reach inside and flip that switch. Of course, we can still teach them to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” before they feel it, but that is not the finish line.
People, children included, will always seek to please the one to whom they are most emotionally attached. I want to be that person, because I have my child’s best interest in mind and I want to be instilling values into their decisions.
But, don’t sweat if your toddler or preschooler really couldn’t care less about pleasing you. They are still too developmentally young to put that together. This natural desire to please doesn’t usually start to show up until kids are around 4-5 years of age, and sometimes even later for the more intense ones among us.
If our children sense that we are a steady, safe relationship for their heart to find rest in, their guards will come down around us, and they will be able to receive our instruction and values more readily. A strong relationship with a child is like the power steering fluid in a vehicle that makes it possible for parents to truly lead.
Like a well-rooted plant, if our children are established in a secure relationship with us, their caregiver, they will naturally begin to mature.
Pulling up on a plant will not make it grow, though it may sit a little higher in the dirt for a moment. In the same way, we can do or say things that seem to get temporary results from our children, but the true growth in them will come when their roots are set deep into our love for them.
When our children walk into the room, they long to see in our eyes that we are happy they have come. They want to know that WE want time with them, that WE want to give them a hug, and that WE were thinking about them when they were away.
Children need to be convinced that our love for them is a far greater resource than they could ever exhaust. When they are convinced of this, they will enter a place of psychological rest.
Psychologists are beginning to see that our greatest need is for relationships that are safe and secure. If that is our greatest need, then naturally, our greatest fear is that those relationships would be damaged or lost.
Just like how our children’s bodies ache for food (OFTEN), our children’s souls hunger for love (and OFTEN). If we meet their need, the satisfaction will lead to psychological rest.
And all true growth comes from a place of rest.
Now, when I took all of these lessons and applied it to the tumultuous interactions with my son, this is what it boiled down to:
1. For goodness sakes, be patient and merciful. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor will my child’s character be.
2. Invest more into the connection with your child, and less energy into just finding ways to control his behaviours. Don’t let embarrassment, shame, or fear drive your parenting.
3. Set him up for success by foreseeing what often causes him frustration. Stand beside him through it – don’t demand that he NOT feel it.
It has proven true. We are not on the other side of this parenting journey, but let me tell you, that the battles ended. When I stopped controlling (out of fear of his future and how things could go wrong for him) and instead focused on ENJOYING him, SAVORING him, ENCOURAGING him, and COMFORTING him in his struggles, everything changed.
Now, when I think of my son, I see that his natural strengths are no longer being swallowed up by the intensity of his passion. People often comment to me how kind-hearted, considerate and dedicated he is. He desires truth and hates injustice. He is observant and hard-working, committed and hilarious. I wish I could brag every time about how far he has come. He is not perfect (and that still causes him frustration), but we weather those storms far easier than ever before.
I am so grateful, and it has given me so much hope for other children too.
I pray that as you read these pieces of information today, you will find space to breathe again and not let fear or worry dictate your parenting choices. Look beyond the behaviour and celebrate who your child is underneath all of that.
The raw materials of personality will be refined in time if we stay connected to their hearts. If we do not become weary, we will see a diamond begin to shine.