Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Self-Mastery . . . For Them and For Us

I wrote this a long time ago, but never hit Publish. If you substitute Ainsley's name for John's, the situation is nearly identical. The good news is that John is in a far, far different (and better!) place today.

A friend of mine shared with her class a basic life truth: If you can't control yourself, someone else will control you.

- If you can't control your spending, there's a friendly repo man willing to abscond with your car or a bank willing to foreclose on your house.

- If you can't show up for work, there's likely a string of applicants ready to take your place.

- If you can't control your sexual appetites, a host of woes -- marital, legal, medical -- just may come your way.

- If you can't control your greed, your temper, your demand to get what you want when you want it, the United States has a vast penal system all too ready to apply the ultimate Time Out.

What is self-control? How do we exercise it as adults? How do we grow this fruit of the spirit in our children?

I look at my young children -- one of them in particular -- and wonder how we can best help him down the road to self-mastery. He is an imp, a total delight, a spontaneously affectionate boy, the child who once put his hands on my face, looked deep into my eyes and said, "I love your fullness!" When I asked what he meant, he added, "Of your heart." A priceless moment I will always, always remember.

He loves with intensity.

When he's tired, hungry, or simply doesn't get his way, he applies this same intensity to bad behavior. It tests a parent's mettle, let me tell you.  I'll spare you the particulars, but, believe me, his fits are nothing short of spectacular.

What's a mother to do? By this point, I'm sure we've tried it all.

With many children the best defense begins with a good offense, and for John this begins with food and rest. John is rail thin, and when he begins to dissemble, blood sugar is frequently the culprit. I'm all about protein, protein, protein. He has long since left napping behind him, but an early to bed, late to rise rhythm evens out his emotions.

Boredom is bad, very bad; constructive activity is good.

Begin discussing children and discipline and inevitably you meander onto the topic of spanking, and parents on both sides of the issue instantly become apoplectic. Let me just acknowledge the elephant in the room: We believe spanking can be a useful tool in raising children.

I enjoy reading Like Mother, Like Daughter. This is a blog chock-full of practical, real-life solutions to the challenges of marriage and family. I had to laugh at what she wrote about spanking:

If you can say that your child is well behaved without spanking, then all the best to you. You are doing a great job and why fix something that isn’t broken? But be honest. The people who advocate the soft, gentle, “Christ-centered”, or otherwise spank-free approach very often have children who are brats, have no children, or have extremely compliant children, few in number and female in sex.
My children are not few in number or extremely compliant, and only one is female in gender. We spank.

When John was just shy of two, he was in a pool and grew tired of his floaties. He pulled one off. I was standing a few feet away holding Ainsley who was an infant at the time. I said, "John, don't take your other floatie off." His brown eyes bore straight into mine. He ripped off his floatie, jumped back into deeper water, and sank like a stone.

I didn't ring my hands, consult a parenting manual, or poll the others mothers at the pool. I spanked him. Well, first I pulled him off the bottom of the pool. In my view, there is a time and a place for spanking.

But here we are two years later dealing with issues that (usually and thankfully) are not life and death or matters of direct defiance. What is my goal as a mother? Am I looking for mere external conformity? On our bad days, believe me, I would settle for it in skinny minute. External conformity? Ummm . . .  yeah.! I'll take it!

Lately, though, in dealing with some trying moments with my little brown-eyed wonder, I have come to the conclusion that a more effective tool to help someone who lacks self-control is to initiate action that demands self-control. Getting a swat on the rear end requires nothing of John. Sitting still does require something of him. When John has thrown fits, I've put him in time out -- no distractions, just a chair in the middle of the room. It's helping.

I've also thought back to Tim at this age. Tim was an only child until he was four. We painted, we read, we worked puzzles, we played board games all the time -- we invested in fun and engaging activities that also require sitting still, taking turns, waiting, i.e. self-control. Sadly, I do less of this with John and Ainsley than I did with Tim and Kolbe. Life with four kids is far busier.

The other individual who needs self-mastery would be me. Lazy, knee-jerk parenting doesn't require self-control, but it isn't effective parenting either. As we sat down to dinner the other night, Ainsley -- tired and hungry -- began to pitch a fit that was only matched by the fit her mother threw. I, too, was tired and cranky --  and weary of the single parent routine and sick of picking up after everyone and done, done, done with all the squabbling. I showed about as much self-control as two-year-old Ainsley.

What message does this send to my children?

The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Like all fruit, producing these virtues requires time -- time to cultivate, time to fertilize, time to harvest. And the time to start is now.

As I read this long after writing it, I was encouraged by how far John has come. Oh, how I would like to give all the credit to my fine parenting skills. Calm and consistent parenting is certainly helpful, particularly when we focus on a single behavior or two (cleaning up after yourself, good behavior at the dinner table, etc.). But I truly believe most of John's transformation has come from time --  he's just grown up a little. 

Sometimes we simply have to endure. Correct and tweak and address issues as we endure, but mostly just stay the course.   


Kris said...

Kelly -- this is SUCH a great post. I'm so glad you decided to publish it! I loved the part about "showing as much self-control as two-year old Ainsley". Oh, how I can relate to that! With 4 boys, sometimes the sheer chaos of their "boyness" gets the best of me and I lose it. And then I am no better than the boys! I, too, employ spanking on occasion. I think, especially with boys, it's sometimes necessary. Most often as an attention-getter, or in a dangerous situation (like your pool example), with the actual punishment to follow. My oldest was very much like your Tim - able to sit and play games, and your assessment of the fact that he was the oldest with your full attention really resonated with me. My two younger ones definitely do no have that Mommy! Anyway - just a great, thoughtful post all around. Really hit home with me, in a good way!

Kelly said...

Thanks, Kris! You know, when we can't be that Mommy of one with the little people, we have to say, "Look, I gave you siblings!"

(They'll really appreciate that fact when I'm old and four of them can takes turns wheeling old Mom around.)

Natasha said...

Thanks for your honesty Kelly, this is me exactly! I take extreme comfort in the fact that my mother, who is the person I most emulate and respect, had her bad days too, and that while I do remember them if I try really hard, they are not even close to top of the list when I think about her as my mother. I think of her gentleness, her compassion, how she always treated us with dignity and respect. And when I remember the bad days, I also remember her humility, and willingness to acknowledge her wrongs and ask us for forgiveness. Let me tell you, that was HUGE in forming my opinion of myself as a child, and now as a parent. It probably only happened a handfull of times (because she was mostly patient) but when it did it was like, "Wow, my Mom really respects me." I hope I can be that to my kids too, and pray that when my kids are grown, my faults and failures will not be absent from their memories of me, but that they will be framed by the happy ones as well, the mother who tried her best to love and give her kids a happy life, who made mistakes like anyone does, but did her best to right her wrongs so that, at the end of the day, her children always knew they were loved and respected.

Kelly said...

That's beautiful, Natasha. My kids definitely know that their parents apologize and go to confession and sincerely try harder the next time. Blessing on your mom; what a great example she gave you.

Natasha said...

oops, didn't realize I posted that three times! Sorry about that :s

Kelly said...

No problem, Natasha! I think I fixed it.