Thursday, March 29, 2012

Toddlers: Life's Little Teachers


             I was walking back and forth in front of the back doors of the church on Sunday, attempting to quiet my cranky two year old, when I saw a father with a little girl about the same age. He had her by the arm and walked her roughly outside. I heard him raise his voice to her and then she began to cry as he swatted her twice. He then said, “Knock it off! Not another sound!” When they came back in, the little girl was overly compliant – but I saw the silent tears, the broken child. She wasn’t being “good” because it was the right thing to do; she was being “good” out of fear. Fear that the people who love her most in the world would hurt her if she expressed her feelings. It wasn’t okay for her to cry when she was upset, but when daddy was upset it was okay for him to yell. It wasn’t okay for her to hit her brother when he took her toys, but it was okay for her daddy to hit her when she tried to tell him she was tired of sitting still. It broke my heart.

                I am of the opinion that children’s feelings are discounted because they are little. Not only do I find that heartbreaking, it worries me. What kind of people will these children become? These children who have learned it’s not okay to express your feelings while your little, but when you’re big enough to harm someone your feelings will be important. I know, I know what you’re thinking – that an undisciplined child becomes a spoiled brat. But let’s take this apart – was the little girl being disciplined? Or was she being punished?

I know those words are often used interchangeably, but they are very, very different. Discipline is derived from the word “disciple”, as in Jesus’ Disciples. If you look up the word “disciple” in a Latin dictionary (the original language of the Bible) you will find that it means “learner”. “Discipline” in the Latin meaning is “to teach, to guide”. “Punishment” by definition means penalty for doing something wrong: a penalty that is imposed on somebody for wrongdoing.

  Also, if you were to look up “rod” in Latin (as in “Spare the rod, spoil the child”) you would find that it means “A staff or stick used to guide a flock”. A shepherd would never use his rod to punish his sheep, lest they come to fear him. He used it gently, never intending harm, to guide them on their way to greener pastures or the nearest watering hole.

In my mind, that translates to this: in order for us to effectively discipline our children, gentle guidance is needed – no; required.

I wasn’t always of this opinion – no, I had my poor moments (and still do!). When Luke was nearly two, it seemed he could not behave no matter what I tried. He screamed in church. He intentionally agitated his brother.  He threw food. He threw tantrums. He broke things. I was at the end of my rope. I spanked him often but he got to the point where he didn’t even cry, he just screamed his protests at having been violated in such a way. He began hitting everyone. Me, his brother, his grandparents, kids at the park, and himself. How was I supposed to teach him that hitting is not how we deal with people who’ve frustrated us, if that’s how I handled him when he frustrated me?

At the same time, I had started a new job as a 911 dispatcher. It is the toughest job I’ve ever done – not just because the work is hard, but incredibly stressful and the training; intense. On my last day of training, I had been employed there two weeks shy of 10 months. I learned a lot about myself during those months – and a lot about how I want to teach my children. It was hard for me to keep my feelings contained when I had done something wrong and was chided for it. At times, it made me feel small; like a failure. I felt like rebelling – like telling them off and quitting because I was trying so hard but it wasn’t good enough. It also made me think. Was this how my children felt when I admonished them for acting out their feelings? They are so little and words just don’t hold the meaning they often need to express when feeling something big. Did I make them feel like giving up because they aren’t good enough? I was determined that I would do everything in my power not to make my children feel like I felt during some days of my training. But how?

The answer came to me at about four in the morning on a Wednesday. I had been so sick. I was in the bathroom, attempting to throw up my guts, and as I sat back on the edge of the bathtub, there was Luke, standing in the doorway. He didn’t say a word, but climbed up on his step stool to the counter and got a Kleenex. He came over to me and gently wiped away my tears and threw his arms around my neck. I was unaware until that moment how capable he was of understanding me and my feelings! He then took my hand and led me back to bed. I was moved to tears. I had to do something different.

I started out by mentally counting to ten before reacting – spanking was something that I did so quickly as my anger surfaced in about 1.6 seconds. Spanking was how my mom had reacted when we had done something wrong and I can remember her gritting her teeth as she squeezed out angry words between swats of the flyswatter. I can remember it making me feel so small and so violated. When I was older and big enough to overpower her, I went wild. What was she going to do? Yell? Ground me? By then I had become hardened to both and didn’t care. I did what I wanted, as did my brothers. I don’t ever want to have to be on the receiving end of the teenager I once was (which is not to say I won’t, but I’m going to do my best).

My second step (after my Mommy timeout) was to address the cause. Was he angry? Tired? Hungry? Needing a diaper? Just needing me? I couldn’t always put my finger on it, but I’ve found the best way to start is to say, “Do you need Mama to hold you?” The first time I asked Luke this, the fight was immediately gone from his eyes, replaced with disbelief. Once he recovered from my unusual reaction, he ran as fast as his little legs could take him into my arms, silent tears falling down his face. It was such an emotional reconnection that I am tearing up just telling you about it! I began to think about how it must feel to have your feelings so grossly overreacted to. To try and tell someone in the only way you know how that you’re tired/hungry/over stimulated only to have them shush you, yell, hit, or ignore you?

Let’s put this in perspective. Let’s say you’re a toddler out with your Mommy at her friend’s house. You’ve been there an hour or so and need something to drink! You babble to your Mommy, but she just smiles and turns back to her friend. You try again. This time, Mommy gets up and plunks you down in front of the TV. And so it begins. It might start out with some clinginess – progressing to fussiness. But Mommy is talking to her friend and takes you to another room to play with the other kid (one you aren’t really familiar with). You just need a drink! Listen, Mommy! You run after her, now crying. She looks at you and puts her finger to her lips and says “Shush! Stop that!”, all the while smiling at her friend. Now not only are you thirsty, your diaper is starting to chafe, you’re tired from crying, and you just want to go home! You throw yourself at Mommy’s feet and continue to scream. Why won’t she listen? Now Mommy’s under pressure from her friend to get you “under control”. She picks you up, spanks you, and puts you in an unfamiliar room and shuts the door. How could she?! You bang on the door, scream and cry, but nobody comes. Finally, you’re so worn out, you give up. No one is coming. Mommy left you. Your little body is exhausted from crying and your little brain so stressed from the situation, you succumb to sleep right there on the hard wood floor behind the door. All over a drink of water.        

It has taken time, and I’ve had to work on my own feelings more than I thought I would, but my children and I generally understand each other now. That’s not to say life is a bed of roses! We still have our moments! I have to dedicate myself to being in tune with them and their feelings – which isn’t easy, but so worth it!

Of course, this post doesn’t even begin to cover all of the ups and downs of parenting a toddler. I intend to write several more on the topic, so stay tuned!

DISCLAIMER:  This method is NOT for the faint of heart. It is NOT easy, nor is it a “quick fix”. It takes time. It takes repetition. It takes trust on the part of everyone. It takes research. It takes dedication. It takes lots and lots of prayer. It takes humility to admit you are wrong. It takes patience, wisdom, courage, and love.

Do you think you have what it takes? No? Well, that’s what the prayer is for.  
<3 SMF

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