When I first started my gig as a mom, I worried (as most moms do) about whether or not what I was doing with my kids was working to produce healthy, happy children. My own mom was a bit of a yeller at times, so that’s what I did at first, too. My oldest son, who was a tender-hearted, sensitive little boy, responded to that style with immediate compliance (“obedience,” as my dad would have described it). Even a hint of anger on my part guaranteed that he’d back right down and do whatever I asked him to do. He was a morning person, so bedtime was always easy and welcomed. He was a joy to deal with because he was good-natured, readily responded to “the look” to keep him in line, and had a need to please others.
But then along came my second son. All those carefully cultivated methods that worked with my oldest son no longer had the same results with him. If I stood my ground, he dug in even deeper. If I yelled, he yelled louder. If I gave him the silent treatment, he simply responded in kind. He could outlast me in any argument, had infinite patience when it came to any showdown, and didn’t budge an inch. Bedtime was a tug-of-war since he was a night owl. His favorite stance was with his fists on his hips, feet planted far apart, and a scowl on his face as he proclaimed, “Mom, you make me so mad!” I would repeatedly give him the lecture about how I couldn’t “make” him mad; only he could decide to become angry with what was happening, and only he could learn to control himself.
It wasn’t long before I began to realize that those tried-and-true methods from my childhood weren’t working so well with my own two kids. My oldest was learning that obedience in all things was the best way to keep the peace, and that others’ needs were always more important than his; with my youngest, I wasn’t teaching him to cope with his life, but was rather teaching him to be a bully. All he had to do was yell louder, push back harder, or stubbornly stand his ground longer, and life worked out great for him. But nobody who wants to raise a responsible, fair-minded future member of a civil society wants that for their children. I had to take an honest inventory of the methods I was using with both my boys, and whether I could improve on those methods.
And an amazing thing happened when I started to really look at my kids as distinct individuals, with unique needs and approaches to the world, to help them grow into the smart, talented, curious, accomplished young men they would eventually become.
I first had to acknowledge that they were, above all, precious gifts. We had waited almost ten years for our oldest to enter our lives; a mere 13 months later, our youngest was born. In a very short period of time, we went from being set in our ways and childless, to having two sweet rosy-cheeked little boys who were curious, bright-eyed, and into everything. Two smart little blue-eyed towheads, busy guys who wanted to know everything about everything, and who explored their world relentlessly.
I began to see my oldest not as a timid little kid who avoided confrontation at all costs, who needed toughening up, but rather as someone who led with caution as he explored the world. He needed to analytically scope out any situation before he jumped in with both feet. He was a fierce and loyal champion for his friends, who saw others as people who needed empathy and kindness, and who was more than happy to give them the support and friendship they needed. I’ll never forget the day I subbed at his school, and I watched him at lunch as he sought out and sat with the kids who weren’t the most popular, or the best academically, or who were not easily accepted by everyone. As a matter of fact, most of the kids he ate lunch with were those that had been the most trying in the classroom, who couldn’t sit still, who weren’t able to stay on task for very long, who were constantly being reprimanded for their behavior by every teacher with whom they had contact. He instinctively knew they longed for a friend who accepted them for who they were, and he was there to extend them his friendship.
I began to see my youngest son not as someone who was stubborn and belligerent, but rather as someone who had a strong need to control his own destiny. He was good at seeing possibilities for his own life, and was clear-eyed and confident that hard work, perseverance, and an optimistic viewpoint would produce results for him. His independence and willingness to try new things became for me something to admire and emulate rather than to try to control or fear.
I also had to acknowledge that my children are not “mine” to do with as I please. They were not put on this earth to simply make me happy, nor was it their job to be responsible for my emotional well-being. We decided to bring them into the world of our own accord, because we wanted to have a family born of the love that two people have for each other. And in God’s wisdom and kindness, He allowed them to look like us, act like us, along with all our mannerisms, quirks, and flaws, to reflect back to us just how unique and precious we are as well.
You can read hundreds of books on child-rearing, and analyze every nuance in your child’s behavior, looking for the magic key to raising happy, healthy kids. But it all boils down to one simple rule: the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So simple, so elegant. But what does it look like in the rough-and-tumble whirlwind of that messy thing we call life?
It’s in the million and one little things you do every day with each of your kids. In the way you hug him every morning, just because you’re glad to see him. It’s how you comfort him when he’s fallen off his bike and skinned his knee. Or patiently explain for the zillionth time how to tie his shoes, or button his shirt, or put on his mittens. Or how to “help” Mom or Dad set the table for dinner, even though you know it will take about four times longer than it would take you to do yourself. It’s honoring his schedule by showing up on time to pick him up after school, when you reminded him to be ready to be picked up at that time. It’s not laughing when he does something awkwardly for the first time, or when his first attempt at talking to a girl he likes ends badly. It’s cheering him on when he makes it to first base after five strikeouts in a row. It’s waking up when lightning strikes in the middle of the night to check on him because you know he might be fearful. Or being the first face he sees when he wakes up from a surgical procedure. And yes, it even means letting him fail sometimes -- because that’s how we learn to do things better. It’s treating your kids with respect, humility and encouragement, because that’s how you want them to treat you back.
I have always appreciated the wording of the Golden Rule. The “do unto others” part comes before the part that references what others “do unto you”. It’s a proactive approach that requires not only a leap of faith, but also a fair degree of vulnerability on your part. You do something first for others, in the hope that they will respond in kind. But it is only a hope that others’ better angels will reveal themselves, and never a guarantee. You never know what others will do, but that’s not really the point. We should do (and be) our best, regardless of how others respond and whether or not they reciprocate. Because it’s the right thing to do.
When my boys reached their teens, I waited with apprehension for those dreaded rebellious attitudes to begin to display themselves. After all, we’ve all been led to believe that teens must go through a rebellious phase, right? Well, it never occurred the way I thought it might. My boys were always respectful and kind toward their parents. They looked us in the eye and carried on conversations face-to-face, person-to-person, heart-to-heart. Sure, they had their moments when emotion, exhaustion, or frustration bubbled to the surface. But who doesn’t have those days? In the end, we loved spending time together, loved talking to each other, and still love sharing all the joys and frustrations of life together.