He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:10-14, ESV)
Alright. Let’s imagine for a moment that children are ignorant of most things because they haven’t learned them yet. Let’s also imagine that just because a child does something right once, it does not mean they have procured a habit enabling them to do said right-thing again.
Most parents have 20+ years of practical lessons learned about the do’s and don’ts in Life. Is it fair then to demand or expect someone who only has 2 or 3 or even [gasp] 13 years of life experience to respond patiently and with a quick “Yes Ma’am” or “yes Sir”? Of course not! And, I think if we slow down and think honestly about the times we scream at them and/or hit until they’re compliant we’ll see our behavior really isn’t different from theirs except that we justify our behavior and condemn theirs. This breaks them. “Do what I say, not what I do” crushes them under an iron-fist.
Now, before you face-palm and think you’re a horrible parent, or proudly quit reading because you think your way of parenting is perfect, hear me out: Both the child and parent need a learning curve. Does this let parents off the hook for blowing up in anger at their kids? No– certainly not. The responsibility falls on the parent’s shoulders, but I want us to focus on something in the above quoted Psalm that I really think will help to level the playing field because it’s not “you” against “them”, it’s you teaching them: for better or worse,
“For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
God the perfect Father shows us how to be a good parent. He reminds us about who we naturally are: clay. Clay is malleable, but have you ever conditioned clay from the earth? It takes time, patience, consistence and is a sl-o-o-o-ow process.
Children do not come out of the womb knowing when they annoy you, make you late to an appointment, embarrass you, irritate you or understand what is dangerous or unproductive. Likewise, they aren’t born knowing what is a helpful thing or hurtful thing, how to make one happy or what makes one sad. They come to us as the most unrefined but exquisite art media in the world. And God entrusts their canvas to Y-O-U.
But they will learn. Boy, they will learn. Clay will still absorb water even after it’s been fired in a kiln if placed anywhere near moisture! Even if a child, say 13, seems set, they’re still learning, still absorbing all our subtle gestures. Like when we ignore how they’re feeling or thinking just to pound our lecture further, go to spend time with them but have our face in our phones, or forget to hold them with full attention and say, “I’m proud of you because you are a learner. Never stop learning, Sweetie.” They are still learning and so are we.
Children will grow and learn, but what they learn is dependent on us the parent. Show them compassion consistently and they will learn compassion. Show them you are slow to anger and quick to listen seeking to understand why they’re feeling or reacting the way they are, and they will be slow to anger with us and quick to listen seeking to understand what is so important to us. Give them empathy, not a solution. Give them a task and wait for them to ask for help. Give them imperfection and teach them repentance and forgiveness.
What about the times I don’t teach them compassion, but teach them impatience, anger and hatred?
Ask that sobbing child you just screamed at or hit if they’ll sit with you then apologize. Tell them specifically what you’re sorry for and why it was wrong and that you don’t want to hurt them. And if they ask why you lost it tell them how what they were doing made you feel (e.g. they were ignoring you so that made you upset). Then ask them to forgive you. Ask to give them a hug if they aren’t already in your arms and tell them you love them.
I do this with my three-year old and man, it has made a huge difference in our lives. We seldom scream at each other, she actually listens when I talk (sometimes, but learning!), I don’t feel a need to spank her and she says things like “Oh, I’m sorry mom. I won’t do __________ again. When I tell her something like “Chelsea that’s not safe please don’t _______ again.” Or “Chelsea, that hurt my feelings when you ignore me. Please listen when I’m speaking to you.”
It has taken months of what seemed like poor practicing to get us here, but it’s possible and we’re better because of it. She even encourages me with the absoluteness of God’s forgiveness when I hurt her feelings and apologize more than once. She says, “Mommy, it’s done. It’s all done. I love you.” These hurtful moments, if you’re humble and sincere, can become the most powerful and impacting of all lessons in life: the lesson of repentance and forgiveness.
We also have to evaluate ourselves regularly asking ourselves, “am I trending DOWN with my poor behavior or trending UP?” We must trend down with our hurtful behavior showing our children we aren’t perfect, but that it’s possible to learn and get better at something. Prayer is powerful and absolutely (redundantly) necessary for effective self-evaluation.
Humbling ourselves regularly before God by asking for forgiveness and help keeps our hearts aware of our shortcomings, which dismantles prideful thoughts like, “I’m not that bad, at least I don’t ________ my kids like so-n-so.” Humility before our children is the best position we can take for instruction. If it’s good enough for Christ, it’s good enough for me. (Philippians 2) If we have received the kindness of God leading us to repentance than surely we must show that same kindness to our children.
Learning to think first and respond second is the hardest habit to form when becoming a parent because most of us are still learning how to do this to various degrees. We must remember our children are born with no practical knowledge, even if they do something right once or twice, it takes doing something right consistently for weeks before it becomes a habit! Remember, they aren’t any different from you. Speak to them how you’d like to be spoken to if you were learning something and practicing it imperfectly.
Lord, help any parent reading this to humble themselves before you remembering we are dust as well as our kids- clay really, and need a patient potter to mold us and shape us into vessels for honorable use. I don’t want our children to be vessels that just store up rebellion and hatred because that’s what they learned from us. I want them to learn empathy, compassion, and love. Help us shape them as you are shaping us: patiently and gently. Amen.
“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:21, ESV)
For more resources about parenting and practical examples giving you a better vocabulary for instructing them patiently check out titles like consciousdiscipline.com, 1, 2, 3 The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Care Givers