This past week, a mother in a Facebook group I’m a part of posted a plea for help: her children were driving her and her husband crazy and they were at their wit’s end. The behaviour she described sounded oh-so familiar: hitting, whining, demanding, talking back, throwing, screaming, tantrums. She described these behaviours as regular in their home, and as a consequence, she and her husband were miserable (and her kids didn’t sound happy, either!). This description of a home that was a constant battlefield of conflict and wounds reminded me of my own home about a year ago, for my son (then 2/3 years old) exemplified much of it.
There were reasons for our crazy home. Foremost among them was that I was suffering deep depression from the loss of our second child. However, even if we hadn’t suffered that blow to our family, I look back and see that we were heading in the direction of chaos anyway. As the eldest in a family that erred on the side of being too strict, I’d been the kid that had perhaps suffered a little too heavy of a hand from my very well-intentioned but inexperienced parents, so even though I judge my parents as having done a truly exceptional job raising my sisters and me overall, I was reacting against those early experiences and I spent more time remembering the few times they were overly harsh rather than the other 99% of the time they got it just right. Furthermore, my husband is a very gentle man and adores his kids; he can’t bear to hear them cry, which had led to a more indulgent approach. Lastly, my sense is that child-led, gentle parenting is quite popular right now, so those are the influences I absorbed from media.
When I wasn’t too overwhelmed and exhausted, I could glimpse that, objectively, things weren’t working so well in the home. I admired my son’s independent spirit, but I occasionally sensed that perhaps we allowed him a little too much independence. Gradually, I acknowledged that his unruliness was not making me nor my husband nor even my son himself ultimately happy. I felt overwhelmed, discouraged, exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do. I was sick of the bedtime battles, the dinner dramas, the overall disrespect. What my parents had quietly been observing to themselves from the sidelines finally dawned on me: I was raising a spoilt brat, and it was making everyone miserable.
Long had I reasoned to myself that my son’s behaviour was perfectly natural according to his age. Unfortunately, my reason did not take me to the next important conclusion for some time: that, although it might be natural, as human beings we are supposed to rule over nature, to tame our wills and to use them to subdue what is wild where needed. Unlike the other earthly creatures, God gave us free will and it is in fact because of this that he gave us responsibility and vastly higher expectations. The human will is extremely strong, and it’s something we can never be deprived of. Sometimes it reminds me of a wild horse, resistant to taming, not wishing to be of use to anyone else. However, since we are profoundly relational creatures, allowing our wills to run wild is ultimately harmful not only to others but also to ourselves. Men and women are at their finest and most glorious when we have full control of our wills and passions; that is what makes us truly free, truly in control, truly powerful. I have come to understand that training my children’s natural behaviour to align with virtuous behaviour is my vocation. Moreover, I’ve come to understand that by constructing a home for them with high expectations for behaviour, rather than damaging their independence and creativity, I am doing them a favour: after all, virtues are easiest to practise when they are habitual. It’s easier to say no to chocolate cake when I’m not used to eating cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One day, I hope my children will find it easy to say no to the myriad of enticing sins the devil has put on display for us, and I believe strengthening their resilience begins now.
I can confidently say that after a year of following the suggestions of my parents and having them demonstrate tactics and assist me, my home is much happier and more peaceful, and I believe this is something most parents can achieve.
As I continue this little series on parenting, I’ll address the following points:
- Building an identity as a parent and a vision for the home
- Setting reasonable expectations
- Using consequences wisely and effectively
- The importance of forming both behaviour and attitude
- Why manners matter