Saturday, July 28, 2012

God, Parenting and Rethinking Punishment

It's hard to relate to two-year old Noah a lot of the time. Those with two-year olds, hopefully you know what I'm talking about. I have this fear that if I don't forcefully teach him to consider other people's feelings right this moment, it'll all spiral and before you know it he'll be forty and not care for people. I also have a fear that if I cater to his needs too much, I'll be exhausted and run out of energy. But he's two right now, and most timeouts or conflicts with Eug and I seem to leave him incredibly sad, hurt and confused. Seeing him hurt or hearing him cry drains my energy, too.

I've been thinking about God's discipline, and how Jesus approached people who were were outcasts or who had committed what were considered grievous sins at the time. A major disclaimer before I continue: I'm not dissing your way of parenting here or trying to overspiritualize something I'm exploring. I'm a beginner parent and a beginner with Jesus. But I think a lot of my baggage around "well-behaved children" relates to my experiences in church settings, so I'm exploring whether God really fears us "spoiling the child".

When I'm angry I sometimes say "I just can't be around you right now" or "you just don't understand, you need to listen!!" or "you need to stop crying or I'll take you upstairs" or "you need to give that to me or I'll have to take it" or  "you can't wear your underwear on the outside!" If you're a parent, I wonder if these sound pretty reasonable? But a lot of times this sends him the wrong message about our relationship. It tells him he's unbearable, small, that his tears are not valid, that it's ok to take things from him, and so on. This is not to say I can stop saying all these things overnight, because it takes time to find practical alternatives: you can't replace GIVE ME THE KNIFE RIGHT NOW with "keep the knife!" you have to replace it with "Why don't you try the smaller knife with me?"; you can't replace YOU HAVE TO SHARE with "oh sure, take all that little boy's toys", and so on.

When I force Noah to be the person I want him to be, I'm trying to do more than God does with us. From my experience, God protects me from certain things, but otherwise when I'm doing something awful the consequences are either that my conscience tells me so, or that (if I'm hurting someone) they withdraw or respond in some way. I always feel loved by God, and I often feel even more loved when I'm in a place of vulnerability or hurt. The only people Jesus seemed to come down hard on were the people who thought they were doing great, the people who thought they knew all the answers. To others, he gave them love and simply said "go and sin no more". So there's consistent guidance available, but looks less like punishment and more like input and natural consequences.

Rather than thinking Noah is out to destroy us, I think he's a little boy with needs and wants I have to try to enter into, even if I can't concede them all for his safety or my sanity. I don't want to teach him rules of behavior, I want him to teach him how to love well.

Eug does this thing: When I ask him if he wants the big piece of chocolate or the little piece, he always takes the big piece. He allows me to be the kind one. But when I'm not watching and he's portioning out food, he consistently gives me the best. No matter what. It makes me want to do the same, though my natural tendency is to take the best when I think noone is watching. I also want Noah to give the best when noone is watching. I don't want him to share or give the best because he's been trained that it's "what you do".

Yesterday was one of the best days I've had with Noah. There were just a few moments when I did stuff differently: I let him play with the bucket of soapy water I'd intended to mop the floor with. I let him shower at 11am, for as long as he wanted. I suggested he bring my jewelry container on a walk when I noticed he didn't want to go on the walk because he was busy with my earrings. We got him in the car to his grandparents by letting him know he could take a granadilla to grandpa, and eat one with him. I let him stay in his soiled pants for an hour until he was ready to admit that they'd been peed in. He didn't cry until the end of the day. He said he was sad because he didn't want to say bye bye to mom and dad. Rather than dismiss him or label him as manipulative, as I might on another day, I sat awhile with him, let him hug me and said I was very sorry that we were in a different room to him, and that he was alone. We laughed at all the snot on my clothes from his crying. I piled up his fluffy toys next to him so that they wouldn't be lonely. And when I finally left for the fourth time, I didn't have the doubts I have when I take the hard line. So I had energy left over. It was a very peaceful day.


Darren said...

Hey Jo:

I love your thoughtful process. You remind me that "being in control" is overrated.

It's a hard balancing act. Sometimes it can be hard to know what boundaries are really important and when should "no" really be "no."

Right now, the most significant issues with the girls, seem to be with each other. Each of them is trying to negotiate with us and with each other. They are constantly conscious of their sibling. They delight in bothering and annoying one another, they get angry with one another, and then they watch to see how we respond.

leah said...

I'm hope because you're a minimalist you don't have any expensive earrings. I let Zion play with a duplo chicken in the stroller and he lost it and I was like totally shamed at home... that was our ONLY chicken piece!

On the subject of discipline, I think you probably know what's best for Noah because he's similar to you psychologically in many ways. He's crying after altercations and you're also upset about them, so obviously they're not good. With Harvey, both of us feel really relieved and happy after I lay down the law on some point that's making him whine. After like a half hour of whining for juice in the car I told him yesterday, "We have a new rule. No juice except at meals." He immediately brightened and said, "okay!" The feeling I had was as if I saved him from some incessant craving that was torturing him. So, you know, to each his own family.

Concrete Gardener said...

I think Noah needs some clear easy boundaries as well- and it sounds like telling Harvey wasn't in the context of you getting really angry. Noah is usually fine with my limits if I'm relaxed and not freaking out. Now it sounds like I'm constantly freaking out. He's responding a lot better in tantrums when he knows we're not going to respond with punishment that seems to spiral. We've had two tantrums in the last 4 days, which is actually a great improvement.

Beth said...

love reading your writing, Jo, as always.

Can't remember if I ever mentioned the book "Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves" to you, but her approach reminds me of yours!