“Norah, don’t put that plastic bag over your head. That’s dangerous.”
She slowly lowers the bag and looks at me like she doesn’t understand, even though I know she understood exactly what I meant. Then she raises it again.
(I always looked at those warnings on plastic bags with amusement. Like, how dumb can parents be to let their kids play with a bag? and why would kids actually think of putting a plastic bag on their heads? is it really so appealing that they would do it and suffocate? Um…apparently, yes.)
“Norah, no. Put the bag on the floor. It’s not safe to put a bag on your head.”
“But I want to do it,” she says.
“It’s not safe, babe. Put it down.”
“No. I want to put it on my head.”
“No ma’am. It. Is. Not. Safe. Listen and obey, right now.”
“NO! I WANT TO PUT A BAG ON MY HEAD!”
At this point, Daddy’s voice starts low from the other room, “Norah, listen to your mommy.” She runs away from me, straight to him. Straight to that low, disciplinary voice. Straight to that strength and security. Straight into being disciplined, and she knows it, but she makes the beeline anyway.
I feel tired. After a week of sickness in our house, Norah’s tired too. She’s been well, but she’s out of sorts, and she’s letting me know it. I’ve written a lot about discipline, meeting my kids where they’re at, and trying to show them love in the middle of a difficulty, but I confess. Norah has had me bewildered this week. Where did this kid come from? And when will she go away and send my daughter home?
As a habit, I approach discipline trying to teach my kids to make the right choices, not just to obey what I’m saying. I don’t want them to be automatons, obeying every little command just because an authority said so. I want them to use their judgment and decide what is right and wrong. That way they are able to reason and do right, even if I’m not around. So I typically don’t jump to snatch them away from a situation (granted, if they are in serious or immediate danger, I do. I’m talking about on average, especially when I’m right there to help if things go awry). Norah, at two years old, is definitely old enough to understand this, and she has been for a little while. But the downside (or should I say inconvenience?) to this style of discipline is that it gives more room for challenge. And she’s found that aspect very fulfilling this week.
I cried about it in the shower today. The challenges to my authority not only are tiring, but they’ve left me feeling at a loss. What do I do now? How do I handle this kid when I’ve exhausted all of my ideas, and she still isn’t responding? After a good cry, I started praying about my whole laundry list of things – going through all the stuff I know I should pray for, half heartedly, like a duty. And as quickly as I was trying to get through it, I heard The Lord say to me, “Is it too much to believe that I just want you? A relationship with you is more important than a stack of requests.”
And I knew that, though He was speaking to me personally, He also gave me the answer to my struggle with Norah.
I think back to when Davy called for Norah to obey, and she ran straight to him. She wasn’t running to be disciplined, though she knew that was coming. She was running toward the relationship. When Davy disciplines our kids, first he wraps them in his arms. He speaks to them face to face, eye to eye. He uses firm language, but he also uses tender language. And after giving the consequence (whatever that specific disobedience required), he tells them he loves them, urging them to remember to obey next time because it makes him sad when they have to be in trouble. The entire experience is wrapped in relationship, even though the consequence itself is unpleasant.
I write this, not because I’m trying to show off how well I think our family does discipline, but because I realize my errors by watching my husband. Instead of embracing her heart, I embrace the power struggle. Instead of making a connection, I just try to administer the consequence. Instead of taking the time, I’m rushing to get things “fixed and back to normal.” Don’t get me wrong – Davy isn’t a perfect saint. Some days I see his face as he takes the kids to the other room, and he’s having a power struggle of his own. But I see the fruit of his interactions with them. I see the relationship that he fosters, and it is apparent through the kids’ behavior that it is working. It is infusing trust, security, and a sense of moral responsibility.
A relationship with my kids is more important than my “stack of requests.” Making that heart connection in the moment of struggle is more important than just administering the consequence for disobedience. It gives the opportunity to work on our character issues, not just the physical issue that caused the trouble, and it helps to build trust with them, so that as they grow into more eloquent people, they feel the safety in expressing their emotions and struggles with us, instead of just worrying about getting in trouble.
As I think about this, I realize that it takes more commitment to discipline than before. It takes willingness to set aside my expectations and plans. It takes a choice to give my child undivided attention until we work this through, and I have to be willing to let other things go while I do that. It’s hard to do because I don’t want my coffee to be cold, or I don’t want to stop this thing mid-chore (because chances are, I won’t get back to it today). But that’s where I have to remember where my priorities lie. They do not lie in having a clean house or a perfect dinner. God called me to be a mother, and that’s where my investment of time should be – my children.
So, in the spirit of transparency, this is a challenge to myself, and to any of you, dear readers, who want more relationship in our discipline strategies: to take a breath before saying No, focus on a relationship with my child, and to remember that a heart connection is better than doling out consequences.