You know that thing that you’re always supposed to say when your kids are acting up? (And by “acting up” I mean behaving inappropriately, driving you crazy, whining and crying and not listening and pouting defiantly . . .)
You’re supposed to say: “I love you, but I don’t like this behavior.”
At least, that’s what I learned back when I was an elementary school teacher, and that’s what the handful of parenting books I’ve read all advise: Separate the behavior from the person. Let the child know that they’re loved and accepted, but that their behavior isn’t acceptable.
I think that probably IS the right thing to say when disciplining kids — or when dealing with anybody, really. I’m certainly thankful each and every day that who I am transcends my behavior at any particular moment. We all crave the security of unconditional love and forgiveness; I believe the correct term for this is “GRACE.”
But here’s a moment of brutal honesty: Sometimes, even as my lips are saying, “I love you, but I don’t like this behavior,” my heart is saying, “I love you, but right now I REALLY DON’T LIKE YOU AT ALL. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT! In fact, it is only by sheer force of will that I am continuing to be your mother at this moment.”
It was scary the first time this happened . . . and the second, and the tenth. . . . Because back when I was sagely reading up on discipline strategies, before having kids, I never expected that my own children could push my buttons so accurately, could enrage me so violently, could make me not like them. At least, not until they reached the teenage years. But my children are four, three, and one. They’re adorable. They’re much smaller than me. How could I NOT like them?!?
Of course, I DO LOVE my children. Even when they’re driving me crazy, I’d still throw myself in front of a runaway bus for them, if it came to that. (Thankfully, it hasn’t.) But what all those parenting books and teacher training seminars never mentioned was this: in the moment, it’s almost impossible to separate the behavior from the child. When I say, “I love you, but I don’t like your behavior,” I’m not being totally honest. Or rather, I’m making a choice to say the right thing, while hoping that my feelings will follow in time. That’s something I do a lot as a parent . . . and as a person.
So, what’s this behavior that makes me want to rip out my eyeballs, forswear motherhood, and run to the nearest cafe for a lifetime of quiet solitude?
Well, since I’m being honest, when I step back to consider: It’s the behavior that most reminds me of myself. Impatience. Selfishness. Obsessive perfectionism. Clinging dependence. Senseless anxiety. All things I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to overcome and move beyond. When my children’s behavior pushes my buttons and enrages me, it’s usually because I’m inwardly saying, “Don’t DO this! Don’t BE this way! I know where this will take you ten, twenty, thirty years down the road!”
In other words, when I don’t like my children, I think it’s really because I still don’t totally like myself. . .
Which makes me wonder about God. You know: The Perfect Parent? I’ve often wondered how God is able to love us unconditionally when we so often behave toward Him the way my children behave toward me — and worse. I don’t think that God has my little problem of saying, “I love you, but not your behavior,” and not really meaning it. How does He DO that?
I reckon God can do this because He also doesn’t have my little problem of imperfection. When I act selfish or impatient or obsessive or anxious, it doesn’t remind God of Himself. He doesn’t have the kind of emotional baggage that I bring into my relationship with my children: I want to stop them from being like me. On the contrary, God knows that for me to become my best self requires being MORE like him. It doesn’t surprise or scare Him when I act up, so He doesn’t tear out His hair or pour Himself a scotch or lock Himself in the bathroom.
No; instead, God says, “I LOVE YOU. Also, when you’re ready, I can help you with that behavior.” Amazing grace.
Then, He gave me these kids. These kids who mirror me back to myself, who stretch my patience and love and anger to the limit.
I get the feeling God’s trying to tell me something. . . .